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Southland’s faithful, clergy back pope pick

The Rev. Dennis Spies speaks parish special Mass pray for newly elected Pope Francis St. Liborious Catholic Church Wednesday March

The Rev. Dennis Spies speaks to the parish at a special Mass to pray for the newly elected Pope Francis at St. Liborious Catholic Church, Wednesday, March 13th, 2013, in Steger. | Gary Middendorf~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 15, 2013 11:25AM



Half a world away from the jubilant scene at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Crete resident Paula Vandermeer on March 13 started spinning in her office in Grant Park out of joy for a newly elected pope.

“He’s going to be a unifier,” Vandermeer said hours after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Buenos Aires, became the new worldwide leader of the Catholic Church. “I know he’s going to be a unifier.”

Vandermeer was one of about 30 parishioners celebrating by attending a special Mass for the new pope on the evening of March 13 at St. Liborius Church in Steger.

“It’s a great day to rejoice for the church,” Pastor Dennis Spies said. “It’s a great day to rejoice for the Americas.”

Many parishioners at the service agreed.

“For me, it was very overwhelming,” Patty Heiss said. “For the first time, I got chills when the white smoke came out of the chimney.”

Schererville resident Dave Evanseck said he agreed with the new pope’s ideology.

“He’s on the conservative side, and I’m happy about that,” Evanseck said.

Governors State University professor Taida Kelly said she enjoyed hearing the new pope knows how to do the Tango.

“Just watching the crowd on TV, I had tears in my eyes. I felt so blessed that I’m a Catholic,” she said. “It takes away some of the stings going on in the Catholic Church.”

Kasia Kulchawik, a freshman at Marian Catholic High School who met with a youth group after the Mass, said, “We can get a different perspective from the other side of the world.”

Spies had opened his homily asking how many people prayed for the cardinals to select a new pope. About three-fourths of the crowd raised their hands.

“We had a billion people praying for the decision that was made. That’s incredible to consider,” Spies said.

Catholic leaders throughout the Southland also reacted positively, though most were surprised that Bergoglio was chosen.

Many were excited by what the choice might mean for the future of the Catholic Church.

Edward Weston, principal of St. George School in Tinley Park, was interviewing confirmation candidates in his office about 1 p.m. when he heard shrieks coming from the school’s office staff.

“I opened the door and heard, ‘We have a pope, we have a pope,’” he said. “It makes me proud to be a Catholic.”

A new regime will bring a new look and new hope for the church, he said, and help it move beyond recent scandals and bad publicity.

Graziano Marcheschi, executive director of ministry at St. Xavier University, called Bergoglio, 76, a “genius choice” and thought the cardinals were looking for an “evangelizer.”

“What’s most attractive is by coming from South America, ... the Holy Father is very much aligned with the poor,” Marcheschi said. “Most Catholics are not First World people, they’re Third World people. Here is a pope who can identify with people from the Third World, who can speak their language, who has shared a lot of their heritage. That will speak volumes.”

Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlon said he, too, “thinks it’s wonderful that the pope is Hispanic.” But where the pope is from is not so important to Conlon. He believes the cardinals chose the man who has taken the name Pope Francis I because he is “the right pope of the church at this time.”

There are more than 655,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Joliet, which stretches over seven counties. Asked if the number has been growing or declining, Conlon said, “That’s always a difficult question to answer because it’s hard to know what standard to use to measure.”

In marriages and baptisms, the numbers are up, Conlon said.

“You also have to look at the number of people who stop practicing the faith for various reasons. These are people we have to reach, too,” Conlon said. “Is the number of active Catholics up? I’m not so optimistic about those numbers.”

Conlon’s priority of having the “right pope” probably will mean more after the excitement of having a Hispanic pope has subsided.

One problem facing Pope Francis I is how to deal with sexual abuses of minors committed by priests. Even as cardinals met in Rome this week, the Joliet diocese announced a court settlement in a case involving allegations from three people who said they were abused as minors in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although he is from the liberal order of Jesuits, Bergoglio is “straight down the party line” of Catholicism when it comes to opposing gay marriage or ordaining women as priests but also is known for his compassion, Marcheschi said.

The Rev. William Malloy, pastor of St. Barnabas Church in Chicago’s Beverly community, said he was surprised by how quickly the election occurred.

“It is a great thing that they elected someone from outside Europe, someone from the Third World,” Malloy said. “It’s a sign of the church’s growth and universal reach.”

The Rev. Jay Finno, pastor of St. Stephen Deacon and Martyr in Tinley Park, said the election of Bergoglio is both exciting and symbolic of good things to come.

“Any time there is new leadership, it’s an opportunity for a fresh start,” Finno said. “He can build on his predecessors, but I think he’ll bring a new perspective, being from South America.”

Mary Kay Burberry, director of religious education at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Orland Park, was thrilled that Bergoglio adopted the St. Francis name.

“How can you forget that name if you’re (in our parish)?” Burberry said. “I don’t think we’ll ever forget who the pope is here.”

Contributing: Bob Okon



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