The election of the first pope from South America, one who speaks fluent Spanish and is a member of the Jesuit order, seemed to resonate Wednesday with Catholics in Maine.
They said Jorge Mario Bergoglio — Pope Francis — is humble and mindful of the needs of the less fortunate.
At St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Augusta, workers rang church bells and draped yellow ribbons over church doors to mark the election of a new pope.
The Rev. Francis Morin said the selection was “totally unexpected,” but “I’m really excited.”
Bishop Richard Malone, the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Portland, said the choice caught him off guard.
In a statement released Wednesday, Malone said he was impressed with Pope Francis’s “humility and spontaneity as he began his first blessing to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square by asking everyone to pause in silent prayer, to pray for him and to bless him. That was a powerful moment.”
Malone took time out Wednesday night from a relief services conference in Baltimore to speak with media from across the Northeast.
“My reaction is one of surprise,” Malone said during the conference call.
Malone said the pope is from a part of the world where the Catholic religion is thriving. He said South America now has more Catholics than any other continent.
Malone said he sees potential for greatness in the new pope, who has shown “tremendous concern and passion” for those in need in Argentina.
Malone said the fact that Pope Francis is the first Spanish-speaking pope will benefit Hispanic members of the church in Maine and across the globe.
“I’m very happy. He will represent us, all the Hispanic people,” said Rosario Starrat, outreach coordinator for the Hispanic Ministry in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
Starrat, who lives in Lewiston, said the church needs someone with strong moral principles to lead it out of the struggles it has encountered with issues of sexual abuse by priests.
“I feel he will help us in this difficult time,” she said.
Sacred Heart Church in Portland’s West End supports the Hispanic Ministry by celebrating the Eucharist in English and Spanish.
“I’m both humbled and giddy at the same time,” said the Rev. William Campbell of the Society of Jesus, president of Cheverus High School in Portland, which offers faith-based education based on Jesuit teachings.
Campbell said that when the new pope was elected, he was flooded with dozens of text messages and emails from the Cheverus community.
“They were delighted,” he said.
Campbell said the election of a 76-year-old from Argentina — the first Jesuit pope — surprised him.
“There were two givens, going into the papal conclave: that the new pope would not be an American or a Jesuit. This flies against convention,” Campbell said.
Campbell said the Jesuit order is known for its emphasis on education and “its engagement with the world.”
The fact that Pope Francis is the first non-European pope since the 8th century also bodes well.
“He presents to the world the reality of our church that we are a global faith,” Campbell said.
Sister Patricia Pora, who lives in Portland, lived in the South American countries of Chile and Peru for 28 years.
She likes the fact that Pope Francis speaks Spanish and comes from an area that’s not as highly developed as the United States.
“He knows the realities of a developing nation,” Pora said.
In 2005, Pora helped form the Roman Catholic Church’s Hispanic Ministry. She received dozens of phone calls from Hispanic church members Wednesday, all in favor of the new pope.
“I think he could be the symbol of change for our church. It’s a new beginning, and he gives us hope,” Pora said.
William Slavick, a retired University of Southern Maine professor, is a Catholic who has publicly criticized Malone and the church for not taking stronger positions on corporate greed, environmental degradation and the rights of women.
His initial response to Pope Francis was favorable.
“I don’t think the church could have survived another papacy governed by fear,” Slavick said. “They were all possessed by their fear of losing power. They turned their backs on the bigger issues.”
Slavick said the Catholic Church needs a strong moral leader who is not afraid to take on global issues.
“He is a man who lives simply and pays attention to the needs of the poor,” Slavick said. “I think there is reason for hope.”
Philip Lizotte of Wells attends St. Mary’s Church in Wells and is a member of the Catholic-based charitable organization Knights of Columbus.
He said he was hoping that a younger man, such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, would be elected pope.
But after looking at Pope Francis’s credentials, Lizotte said he was more than impressed.
Lizotte liked the fact that Pope Francis bowed and asked for prayers of support.
“That gave me a clear message as to what type of pope he could be,” he said.
“He may be 76 years old, but he looks strong,” said Lizotte. “I guess time will tell.”
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: