Less than 30 minutes after Pope Francis appeared on the Vatican balcony and led a crowd of tens of thousands in the Lord’s Prayer, the bells rang over St. Francis Xavier Church in Missoula.
Ten minutes later, the cork was popped on a bottle of Korbel California Champagne at the St. Francis Xavier Parish next door. Glasses all around, followed by a toast.
“Cheers to the new pope,” they hailed.
It was the first time in eight years Catholics could toast a new leader. Pope Benedict XVI resigned the post this month, opening the doors to a new appointment.
While the ever-popular Pope John Paul II was elected on the eighth ballot in 1978, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected after five ballots, becoming the first pope from the Americas – something Father Rich Perry called a cosmic shift in thinking at the Vatican.
“It’s a pope from Latin America, which is huge in terms of a whole theological perspective,” Perry said. “No one has ever taken the name Francis before, and it says something about his connection to St. Francis of Assisi, who stood for simplicity, working with the poor and rebuilding the church.”
At a downtown Missoula gym over the noon hour, televisions on the exercise cycles were tuned to CNN, which projected images of white smoke wafting from the Sistine Chapel – a sign that the College of Cardinals had reached a decision.
At St. Francis Parish, the joy was clear. One woman heard the news on the radio. Another had set her cellphone with a “pope alarm,” which activated at 12:11 p.m.
“We’re excited,” said Pam Brigham, the social justice coordinator at St. Francis. “He’s a Jesuit, and he’s from the developing world, which is great.”
Their celebration didn’t come without hope. Francis faces a tough task in what some Catholics see as a need to bring the church back to order after years of sexual abuse scandals and outdated mandates.
Those at the parish Wednesday also wanted to see Francis move toward social justice and take a new tone in helping the poor.
“I think a pope from Latin America will be aware of those issues,” said Ann Moriarity. “Being a Jesuit, I think he’ll be aware of those issues.”
The wish list also includes an international desire to see women enter the priesthood. Last year, Benedict restated the church’s ban on women priests.
Benedict also said he wouldn’t tolerate disobedience by clerics on fundamental teachings. Under his leadership, the church cracked down on advocates of female ordination, leading protesters in Rome to send up pink smoke on a hill above the Vatican as the College of Cardinals gathered to elect a new leader.
“First of all, there were many women around Jesus,” said Carol Emmons, at the St. Francis Parish. “When the church started, the women were just as active as the men. Somewhere along the way, the men got all the power. There’s no reason women can’t be priests.”
There are moments in time when people remember where they were when they heard the news. The shooting of Ronald Reagan may be one. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster may another. The terrorist attacks in 2001 another still.
“I was driving over here and I heard it on the radio,” said Emmons. “I couldn’t believe it almost. It seemed so fast. When I went in to get my haircut, they didn’t have a pope. When I came out, they did.”
As for that pope alarm, that’s where Moriarity got the news.
“I got it at 12:11 – a text and an email saying there was a new pope,” she said. “But they didn’t say who it was. My son called and told me who it was.”