Local Catholics greet choice of pontiff with joy, hope

New London - Just after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the regular afternoon Mass crowd began to trickle in the front door of St. Joseph Parish on Squire Street. Routine came first - solemn, automatic - dipping quick fingers in the white fonts by the entrance.

But there were smiles, too, and chatter - shared glances of tacit glee, even an occasional thumbs-up.

It was no more than two hours after the announcement: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina would be the next to lead the Catholic church.

Roy Baldi, 73, stood in the foyer with his wife, Mary. They'd been planning to visit Rome in June as guests of a parish group out of Cromwell. Some of them were going to sing for Pope Benedict XVI.

"Now when they go, I guess they'll be singing for this pope," he said.

He was surprised, he said - pleasantly so - by the choice of Bergoglio. He'd been thinking the next pope would be from Milan, maybe Canada.

"It's about time (Hispanics) were represented in the Vatican," said Martin Fuller, 64, a longtime parishioner at St. Joseph who carries laminated cards with single pressed rose petals inside - blessed by Jesus and Mary on sacred grounds, they say.

"It's all happening real fast," he added. "It's nice how it happened so fast."

Inside, the sanctuary air was redolent with sweet votive smoke and traces of old incense. The stained-glass windows reaped the benefits of daylight saving, lending a lifelike glow to the figures depicted, bathing the sanctuary in soft, crepuscular light. About 30 were seated, waiting.

At half-past, the Rev. Nicholas Mukama Mbogo began.

"I see you all happy," he said. "We are no longer orphans, eh?"

When he spoke the 266th pope's name, he called himself privileged to do so.

"I feel special," he said.

When he said it a second time, his arms were spread and raised, palms open: "Francis, our pope."

In the back room behind the pulpit after the service a half-hour later, Father Nick, as he likes to be called, played the iPhone video he'd captured earlier of the announcement on his TV at home. He admired the simplicity of the speech, he said, and the implications of globalization attendant with the first Latin American pope. And as an immigrant from Uganda, he expressed solidarity with the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina.

A Jesuit joining the Vatican, he said, is revolutionary - a delightful mixing up of the established order.

"One crossing to the other aisle is like a Republican who votes for a Democrat," he said.

A welcome change

News of the world's first Latin American pope was welcomed by Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, founder of the nonprofit Hispanic Alliance and a Peruvian native.

Melendez-Cooper said the choice of Pope Francis evokes a "feeling of presence" for the Latino community worldwide in having a new Latino leader - a feeling of connection, he said, of representation and recognition.

"They didn't think that a Jesuit would be a papa," he said.

As for what precisely the selection of a Hispanic pope means, he is unsure. Time will tell, he said. But there is great anticipation.

"People don't know what kind of changes can be in the church. I don't think many in terms of doctrine," he said. "But maybe fresh air coming there."

The Most Rev. Michael R. Cote, bishop of Norwich, issued a press release early in the evening, expressing joy, excitement and gratitude.

"The extraordinary events of the past month - sudden as they have been - have brought us the gift of a new Shepherd prepared for this moment - for this time," he wrote.

"As the first Pope ever chosen from South America, the Holy Father will have a special appreciation for the prosperity of faith in Latin America. Felicidades Santo Padre, Papa Francis."



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