Locals embrace selection of pope

Parishioners, diocese officials hope Pope Francis can rebuild church


Eyes around the world were focused on the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City on March 13, as white smoke billowed from the chapel’s chimney, indicating that the College of Cardinals had selected a new pope.

Many of those eyes were right here in East Meadow. The Herald surveyed the reaction of the local community, and learned that the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Pope Francis, came as a surprise.

The Rev. Ralph Sommer, of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in Westbury, admitted that he was unfamiliar with the new pontiff, but said he grew increasingly fascinated as he learned his life story. “So far, I’m touched by some of his humble gestures,” Sommer said this week.

He said he was particularly impressed, when, before delivering the traditional pope’s blessing to Rome, Francis bowed before the massive crowd in St. Peter’s Square, asking them to bless him. “That is a very humble and a very open act,” Sommer said. “He really wants to engage in the community. And that’s really what a church is, isn’t it? A family community.”

Joann Heaney-Hunter, a pastoral associate at St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church in East Meadow, has taught theology at St. John’s University for 26 years. She said she was in a faculty meeting with her colleagues when she first heard the news. “Somebody said ‘White smoke,’ and we all just stopped,” she recounted.

The Mineola native said that Bergoglio was a top candidate for the papacy in 2005, but was not the subject of much attention this year because of his age. But Heaney-Hunter said she is pleased with the selection. “My immediate thought was that he was an absolutely beautiful, humble man who had the spirit of God in him,” she said. “I believed that he stood there in humility, and he asked the people of the crowd to pray for him before he blessed them.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning resignation last month drew mixed reviews from Catholics, according to Heaney-Hunter. “There are some people who believe that the pope should stay as pope until he dies,” she said. “But many more believe that what Pope Benedict did took an enormous amount of courage and humility.”

Another hot topic of conversation after the news broke, Heaney-Hunter said, was exactly which Francis the new pope, a member of the Jesuit order, had in mind when he chose his papal name — Saint Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier, who was a Jesuit missionary.

Heaney-Hunter said that Francis of Assisi was the appropriate choice, because “when he was in prayer, he heard God saying, ‘Rebuild my church.’ He was somebody that was charged with the task of building up God’s people.”

Sommer also said that parishioners were pleased with the new name and the reasons the new pope chose it. “That struck a lot of us that he may have picked that name because the church does need some rebuilding,” Sommer said. “And that’s very encouraging.”

Heaney-Hunter acknowledged that the Catholic Church’s problems have discouraged many of the faithful in recent years. “I think all we have to do is read the newspapers, and what you will see is that the polls, the statistics, are showing that fewer Catholics are participating in the Church,” she said. “But what we hope to do in this diocese, and dioceses all over the U.S., is invite people to be a part of all the good things that are happening in the Catholic Church.”

Other local residents expressed their optimism in Pope Francis. “Hopefully, with all the scandals and less people joining the Church, it can bring more unity as opposed to the many independent movements breaking away from the Catholic Church,” said Timmy Brennan, an East Meadow resident and a St. Raphael’s parishioner.

Carol Gyss Gravely, who has taught religious education at St. Raphael’s for 11 years, said, “Pope Francis is very humble in the means of which he has led his life as the archbishop. He resided in a small apartment, cooked his own meals and used public transportation. He has a devout nature to assist the poor.”

East Meadow resident Elena Sanchez emailed the Herald from Italy just hours after the new pope was chosen. “I am currently on vacation in Italy and was thrilled to be here at the very moment of the announcement,” wrote Sanchez, who has worked at the Diocese of Rockville Centre for 10 years and as a self-described “faith formation educator” for 35 years. “As a Latino, he represents the largest growing population in Catholicism and can speak to the diversity the Church … is experiencing.”