Argentine priests in Washington cheer choice of countryman as pope

The flag of Argentina is seen as the crowd in St. Peter's Square reacts to white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney March 13 at the Vatican. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 266th Roman Catholic pontiff on the second day of the conclave. The Jesuit and first Latin American pope took the name Francis I. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The flag of Argentina is seen as the crowd in St. Peter’s Square reacts to white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney March 13 at the Vatican. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 266th Roman Catholic pontiff on the second day of the conclave. The Jesuit and first Latin American pope took the name Francis I. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — For any Catholic living west of the Atlantic Ocean or in the Southern Hemisphere, it must seem impressive to have someone from that particular region chosen as pope for the first time.

Any Catholic of Hispanic heritage is likely pointing to the papal election with pride. Catholics living in Latin America are happier still.

And for Catholics who hail from Argentina, the home of Pope Francis, they are fairly bursting at the seams.

“I’m very excited about this,” said Incarnate Word Father Pablo Bonello, associate pastor at St. James Parish in the Washington suburb of Mount Rainier, Md.

And it’s not just him. Parishioners at St. James, many of whom come from El Salvador and Mexico, “have started to call me now. I feel important,” Father Bonello said, laughing. “They are very excited.”

In a telephone interview with Catholic News Service less than two hours after Pope Francis gave his first blessing as pope March 13, Father Bonello said he was not expecting Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be named pope. “We thought maybe it would be a Brazilian,” he admitted.

Indeed, Father Bonello was expecting Cardinal Bergoglio to have emerged from the conclave eight years ago as pontiff. Instead, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was selected.

“I knew that he was almost with Ratzinger in 2005, when Ratzinger was announced,” Father Bonello said of the new Pope Francis. “I thought they were going to go ‘Joseph Bergoglio.’ I said, ‘It’s not Joseph, it’s Jorge.’ But now it is. But I didn’t expect that moment this time.”

Although Father Bonello hails from Buenos Aires, “I was here (in the United States) already,” he said, when the pope, a Jesuit, was appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires: “Not that I ever met him or saw him.”

The priest said he first received news of the pope when “I got a message, a text, and I saw it. I started to look in the newspapers (for) who he was and I found it in Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper,” he laughed.

For Incarnate Word Father Mariano Vicchi, pastor of St. John Baptist de la Salle Parish in Chillum, Md., and rector of his order’s seminary that is adjacent to the church grounds, he was on a break from a philosophy conference held in conjunction with the Year of Faith when he and the seminarians saw the television image of the chimney releasing white smoke, signaling the election of a new pope.

They decided to stay on break to learn the identity of the new pontiff. “It was worth it,” Father Vicchi said, laughing.

What followed was expected. “That’s the first thing they ask: ‘Did you know him. Did you ever meet him?’ I answer what I tell you. Certainly everybody was asking. I’ve got parishioners calling.”

For the record, the answer is no, he had never met Pope Francis while in Argentina. Father Vicchi hails from the Diocese of Mendoza. But the new pontiff’s reputation precedes him.

“The thing that stands out in this person is his humility. That will be a great asset for him,” Father Vicchi told CNS while on a midmorning break from the conference March 14. “He’s a simple man. You could tell from the beginning he’s a people man. That will be a pastoral asset.”

Father Vicchi said, “Honestly, I didn’t expect him to be pope. I had heard many other names. So that’s why I was so surprised.”

He added, “It comes so much by surprise that I hardly know how to draw plans for the future. I think he’s going to be a very close pope. We really need that, really. Latin American countries really need a voice, guidance, a leader.”

— By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service