Columbia Catholics celebrate, admire Pope Francis

Mar 14, 2013

Chase Freidel was taking a test in Spanish class when someone looked up at the TV and saw white smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel chimney. That meant one thing: A new pope.

"We all looked up, and we all started like cheering and yelling and screaming," she said. "We ran through the halls like saying, 'We've got a pope, we've got a pope!' And like, I ran to the office, and we told them to announce it."

The rest of the test was canceled, and they hadn't been in any classes since – celebration took over the school. Students, faculty and staff chattered and watched EWTN, a Catholic television network, on TVs throughout the school, awaiting the announcement of who the new pope would be. 

"Dude, if I were elected, I'd like kind of walk halfway out and then run back, and then like kind of walk a little," student Lane Reddick joked with a friend, as they watched the curtain hiding the new pope move just a little.

Conversation stopped as the broadcaster announced, "Alright, we've got Jorge Bergoglio, is our new Holy Father, he's an archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina . . . "

"Argentina," one student said, nodding. 

The broadcast continued: "And he's a Jesuit, and he has taken the name Francis."

"Oh, Francis," someone said.

But when the broadcaster said, "He's 76 years old," students were less enthusiastic.

"76?" one said. 

"Old pope," said another.

Still, they were excited he was from South America – that's what at least one of them predicted. 

As Pope Francis appeared to the world for the first time, applause erupted at Tolton High. 

A few minutes later, a group of five junior boys hurried down the stairs to the office for the papal flag. The flag usually hangs outside on a pole next to the American flag, but they took it down when Benedict resigned on Feb. 28. That flag pole has been empty since then.

But instead of the old flag, the secretary pulled out a new one, still in the plastic wrapping. The boys unfolded it and carried it flat to the pole, then clipped it onto the rope and hoisted it into the breeze. 

Back inside the school, laughter from one classroom carried into the hallway as students kept watching televised coverage.  

"This is definitely history," Patrick Ott said.

"Like, we're going to be older and we're going to look back and be like, 'You guys remember that day when like, we just got out of class and watched the pope?'" Sophie Spicci said. She was texting her public school friends, who weren't out of class to watch the pope coverage. 

Emily Temple isn't Catholic, but she still feels the sense of excitement. "Everybody really cares about him," she said. "I didn't realize how much emotion is in the pope."

Pope Francis is also a big deal for Tolton High, the students said: He's the first pope elected since the school was built. 

On Thursday morning, the school threw a pope party, complete with white smoke – one student brought his smoke machine. 

A humble, pastoral pope

Fr. Thomas Saucier, pastor at the St. Thomas More Newman Center, liked the new pope right away. He admired the way Francis didn't just bless the people, but he asked for their blessing – a humble move.

He wished Francis would have smiled a little more when he was first introduced, but "when he grabbed the mic and started talking, there was a transformation."

As the new pope led the crowd in praying the "Our Father," students gathered at the Newman Center prayed along. "He's already very pastoral," Saucier said. 

When Sr. Mary Clare Fichtner found out about the new pope, this afternoon, she cried. "There was something about the newness of it all," she said – and it just seemed that the Holy Spirit had been guiding it. She didn't know much about him, but a quick Google search revealed a lot that "sounds very typical" of people chosen as popes. 

"I'm not expecting things to change a whole lot," she said. 

Just a few hours after Francis was announced as pope, daily mass began at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and Holy Spirit . . . Amen."

Fr. Herb Hayek paused.

"We have a new pope who's a Jesuit who calls himself Francis and dresses like a Dominican," he said. The parishioners chuckled – in the Jesuit order, the priests typically wear black, but the white cassock of a pope is like what those in the Dominican order wear. 

Mass continued as usual, with just a little extra attention on the prayers for the pope.

Hayek spent time in Argentina several years ago and remembers Francis as an archbishop who was well-liked and lived a humble life – he lived in a small apartment, and took public transportation. 

"He was like the people's bishop," Hayek said. "He so broke the tradition."

Although Francis is the first pope from South America – and the Americas in general – he's not as far removed from the long line of recent European popes. His father is Italian, and he spent some time in Germany.  But, he's never worked in Rome before. 

Amid all the admiration and excitement, both Saucier and Hayek said they wish the new pope was younger – Francis is 76.

"They took a bishop out of retirement and put him back on the job," Hayek said.

But, as Saucier said, he seems to have the global perspective necessary as a pope – in part, because of being a Jesuit, which means he's part of a global order. That gives Francis  "keen awareness that everything is for the greater mission, for the glory of God."


Fr. Rastislav Hamracek, a visiting priest from Rome, said he appreciates the new pope's sense of community – the community of the church in Rome and throughout the world. 

Hamracek is in Missouri as a visiting scholar through the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Although he wished he could have been in Rome for the big announcement, and he has friends who stood in the front row of the crowd there as Francis appeared to the world, he's also glad to be here in the U.S. "It is really nice for me to be here," he said. "To look at this moment from this distance, and to see the reactions of the people here."

Carmel Mazzocco, who attended morning mass at Our Lady of Lourdes on the day after the announcement, summed up the way so many people have responded: with admiration for the new pope's simple life in Argentina and his humility as he stepped into his role as pontiff. 

"Church leaders are supposed to be servant leaders," he said. 

This story was published in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. There, you can find more papal coverage from both the local and national levels, and see more photos.