Local Catholics praise choice of Francis as pope

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Local,DC,Virginia,Liz Essley,Arlington

Washington-area Catholics rejoiced at the election of a new pope Wednesday, eagerly sharing the little they knew about the Argentine Jesuit and expressing support for his leadership after the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Catholic University freshman Kaitlyn Feeley, 18, skipped class to watch on TV as the new pope, Jorge Bergoglio -- who is the first to take the papal name Francis -- greeted the crowds at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

"It's nice that he's so humble," she said. "I think he will be the face of Jesus, so we can look to him and see Jesus through the pope."

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, leader of the Archdiocese of Washington and participant in the papal conclave that elected Francis, gave thanks for the new pope. "Pope Francis is endowed with so many gifts that enhance his mission now as the Chief Shepherd of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics," he said in a statement. "We thank God for the many intellectual talents and spiritual qualities, pastoral experience and effective ministry of the new pope."

The Washington Archdiocese and its neighboring Arlington Diocese are said to be home to more than 1 million Catholics.

Local Catholics journeyed to churches to celebrate the pope's election, including to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast D.C., the largest Catholic church in America. While white smoke blew over the Sistine Chapel, bells pealed at the Basilica and organ music resounded the intimate crypt church in the Basilica's basement during a Mass that celebrated the new pope's election.

"Tonight as we gather in prayer, let us also lift up our Holy Father Francis," a priest at the basilica told worshippers. "Today is a momentous day in the life of the church."

Catholics who journeyed to the Basilica on Wednesday said they still didn't know much about their new pontiff, but like him still, particularly the fact that he is the first pope from the Americas and a cardinal who eschewed his church-provided limousine to ride the bus as he cared for the poor.

D.C. resident Magdalena Nakielska, a native of Poland, said she was excited the church's new leader was from Argentina.

"My first thought was 'He's from a poor country, so he would be a good pope,' " she said.

The Rev. Ronald Escalante of Loudoun County said he read about Pope Francis when the cardinal was considered a front-runner for the church's highest office, and said the new pontiff could unite the church's conservative and liberal leaders.

"I think he would have that appeal. He has very broad support. To be elected on the second day of balloting -- that's pretty good," he said. "Even though he's not quite as well-known, the little bit I've been reading about him are things that aren't going to alienate anyone."

Some, including Escalante, expressed concern about Francis' age. The new pope is 76. Benedict XVI resigned citing health concerns at the age of 85.

"I just hope his health holds up," Escalante said.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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