A puff of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney last Wednesday, March 13, signaled the selection of a new pope, Francis I, and sparked a rush of excitement in East End Catholics.
The Roman Catholic Church’s 266th pontiff—the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina—is unusual in many ways: he is the first to succeed a living pope in six centuries, the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church, the first to take the name Francis, the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,200 years, and the first pope from Latin America, a region with a significant and growing population of Catholic faithful.
As the telltale smoke rose above a packed and expectant Vatican City that night—afternoon on the East Coast of the United States—and the historic news was trumpeted, leaders of East End churches, schools and local natives of Argentina reacted joyfully.
The Reverend Donald Hanson was in his rectory study at Most Holy Trinity in East Hampton when a breaking news e-mail from the Flemish-language newspaper “De Standaard” in Brussels—he spent five years teaching in a seminary in Belgium and likes to keep up his language skills—flashed across his eyes:
“Witte Rook in Vaticaan,”
he recalled it announcing: “White Smoke in the Vatican.” He turned to CNN on his iPad.
“I was surprised that it happened so early in the conclave, because there wasn’t an obvious frontrunner,” he said, adding that he was also surprised that the selection was not a European, as is common. The exciting thing, he said, was that he chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, a towering figure in Catholic history who is known for his life of simplicity and poverty.
The 76-year-old new pope, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, has been drawing attention for his acute attention to the poor, as well as his humility, as evidenced by taking mass transportation to work in Argentina and cooking his own meals.
The Rev. Hanson said he is hopeful that Francis I will rebuild the Church spiritually. “This has been a rather turbulent time of scandals,” he said, noting the priests who molested children, bishops who covered that up, and the so-called VatiLeaks scandal about ambition, in-fighting and corruption within the ranks of the church’s central bureaucracy. “I think that people looking for big changes in the doctrine of the church won’t find it from him, but I think he’ll be a more human pope in the sense of being more approachable, more understanding of human frailty,” he said.
He is not too concerned about allegations that the new pope was not forceful enough against human rights abuses in Argentina’s Dirty War from 1976 to 1983, he said, noting that if there was something substantial, it would have come to light.
The Reverend Joseph Mirro of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Quiogue, at the same moment, was interacting with patients at a care center in Westhampton, catching news snippets on TV as he passed from room to room.
“I think we were all impressed by the way he greeted people and reached out to them,” he said, citing the new Holy See’s poverty and holiness as his greatest attributes.
Suzanne Lieder, the director of religious education at St. Therese of Lisieux in Montauk, was in her church office gathered around the TV with a few others. “We turned it on and cheered,” she exclaimed. “He had been one of our top contenders, and when he chose the name Francis, it just summed it all up for us.
“We’re very thrilled and we’re looking forward to journeying with him,” she continued. “It’s going to be a simple way of trying to connect with God.”
Also the director of religious education at Most Holy Trinity, she added that two of her catechism classes had been voting on a pope in class. They did not reach consensus, so they were going to resume this week—but then the pope was picked.
Over at the Basilica Parish of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Southampton Village, the Reverend Michael Vetrano called the new pope “genuinely inspiring.”
“He’s our Holy Father, but he’s obviously a very ordinary priest and pastor, and he leads a personally simple life,” he said, calling him a servant leader.
When he watched the news unfold last week in his parish, he said his first reaction revolved around how the new pontiff comes from a region where, nowadays, most Catholics live, and has a strong focus on the needs of the marginalized. He said he was also surprised because, given that the previous two popes were “professorial,” he expected another. Pope Francis, he said, has not only an intellectual background but also a pastoral and spiritual one.
The Basilica Parish, which earned the designation of basilica from Pope Benedict XVI in late 2011, has a special relationship now with the Holy See. A special canopy, or ombrellino, now adorns the church in case of a papal visit.
The Reverend Janusz Lipsky of Our Lady of Poland Church, also in Southampton Village, said, “We are very happy,” but declined further comment based on his limited English.
Gustavo Putzulu, 38, who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, but now lives in Hampton Bays, said he received word of the new pope via text message from a friend, but was confused at first because the Spanish word for pope is “Papa”—the same as for “father.” Though a Catholic, he does not attend church regularly, he explained.
Nevertheless, he said he was pleased with the selection, noting Pope Francis’s humility—he mentioned how he saw a picture of him wearing old shoes—and how his Spanish-language skills and Argentinian background brings pride to Latinos. He also noted that there have been some arguments between Pope Francis and the Argentinian president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
As the white smoke billowed, the elementary school students at Our Lady of the Hamptons Regional Catholic School in Southampton Village were leaving school for the day, but knew what the color of the smoke indicated. By the time they got home, they were told, they would know who the next pope was, said Sister Kathy Schlueter, the principal.
“I think it’s fabulous. It was a wonderful breath of fresh air,” she said. Growing up in the church, she said, it was almost always expected that the pope would be an Italian cardinal.
She said she believes Francis will lead the church in a simple yet meaningful and grassroots direction.
From watching part of his installation Mass on Tuesday, she said, “There’s this tremendous sense of peace when you see him.”