Several firsts with Pope Francis

Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 9:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 9:50 p.m.

The first South American. The first Jesuit. The first Francis.

Wednesday was a day of firsts for the Roman Catholic Church as its cardinals elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to lead its 1.2 billion members as Pope Francis.

Father Jose Mesa, parochial vicar of St. Augustine Church in Gainesville, was at the hospital anointing patients when he saw the name of the new pope scroll across a television. His phone had been vibrating as people texted him updates.

"Everybody's trying to give me the news, and of course when you are anointing someone, you aren't paying attention to the phone," he said.

Later at the church, he saw the enthusiasm of the college students hanging around the parish, which sits across from the University of Florida.

As the first non-European pope in centuries, Mesa said Francis' selection shows the universality of the Catholic Church. But Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has a European heritage as the son of an Italian immigrant.

With his Italian heritage, the new pope certainly understands the situation in Rome, said Father Tom Willis, director of diocesan liturgy and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. The Diocese of St. Augustine encompasses parishes in Gainesville and other areas of North Florida.

People who hope Francis' time as pope will bring about changes in the church's positions may be disappointed, Willis cautioned, because those aren't changed quickly — if at all.

Several controversial issues, such as the church's stance against abortion, fall within the realm of divine law.

"When those things are what people are looking to change, we can't," Willis said. "We just see those as sacrosanct and that's it."

Neither does Father Willis expect Francis' ministry alone to draw lapsed Catholics back to the church, since local clergy have a greater daily influence on individuals. What Francis can do is help set that example.

"I want somebody who lives the Gospel and excites people to live the Gospel," Willis said.

Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine pointed out that Francis, in his first public moments as pope, demonstrated the simple, humble lifestyle for which he has become known. He wore a plain white robe as he stood on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to address a crowd of thousands below him — and the world — for the first time as Pope Francis.

Another flash of that humility came in what Willis called a "profound moment" when the newly elected pope asked the crowd to first pray for him before giving them a blessing in return. "That we have never seen before," Willis said.

Estevez agreed. "You know, these gestures are very, very significant," he said. "He is a humble servant of the church."

The bishop hopes Francis will help the church establish better governance by actively including all segments of the population, especially women, in its decision-making.

While Estevez and other Hispanics have a deeper cultural connection with Francis because of his South American heritage, he emphasized that the pope is a global figure.

"There is a solidarity there that comes from being in the same cultural mainstream, but deep down a pope is a universal figure," Estevez said. "And so it's not so much that he is one of us, Hispanic, but that he connects us with the entire church because he's recognized as a universal father."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or

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