PORTLAND – At Sacred Heart/St. Dominic church in the Parkside neighborhood Sunday, parishioners could not say enough about Pope Francis, the first Latin American elected to the Catholic Church’s highest office.
“Oh, I screamed when I heard,” said Solange Tehatat, who was at the Mass with her 14-year-old son. She said she watched the conclave of cardinals that elected the pope last week. “I prayed, ‘Send us someone who will unite the church.’ I think the Holy Spirit inspired the College of Cardinals because we need it.”
Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff, has made headlines with nearly every move he has made in the first days of his papacy.
Known in his native Argentina for his humility and his service to the poor, his first decisions as pope — taking the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assissi, eschewing grand thrones and robes for simpler trappings, speaking off the cuff in Italian and wading into crowds to greet people — have endeared him to Catholics looking for a change, parishioners said.
“We’re delighted, of course. He’s pastoral, he’s of the people,” said Sister Pat Poura, who formed the Hispanic ministry for the Maine diocese. “The Latinos are very happy.”
Poura, who is from Chile, said the pope is already being referred to in the Spanish-speaking community as “Pope Pancho,” an endearment and nickname for “Francis.” It’s a sign of how accessible Pope Francis appears, she said.
“A lot of our popes have been academic. He’s a people person,” Poura said.
Pope Francis demonstrated that again in Rome on Sunday, walking out into the streets briefly to shake hands and greet crowds outside the Vatican, according to published reports. He greeted Vatican parishioners one by one, with one young man patting the pope on the back — an indication of the informality that has been evident from the first moment of his papacy.
“Francesco! Francesco!” children shouted his name in Italian from the street. As he patted one little boy on the head, he asked “Are you a good boy?” and the child nodded. “Are you sure?” the pope quipped.
It is in sharp contrast to the last pope, Pope Benedict XVI, who was known for his more formal approach to the office.
In Portland Sunday, the Rev. Greg Dube did not bring up Pope Francis during the service, but afterward he said the pope’s style was welcome, particularly for people who attend Sacred Heart/St. Dominic, which serves many local ethnic communities. On Sundays, one Mass caters to African immigrants, with part of the service delivered in French, while a second Mass is delivered in Spanish.
“He really wants to be with the people, and that’s really where it’s at. It’s where this church is at,” Dube said, waving his hands to take in the interior of the church. “He really speaks from his heart.”
Several members of the church’s Social Justice and Peace Commission said they were hopeful Pope Francis would set a more inclusive tone for the church.
“He’s a friend of the poor, and that’s a huge, hopeful sign,” said Anne Wolf Johnson. But she noted that Pope Francis has some conservative views. “He’s not in favor of same-sex marriage, so that is something we will have to weigh. A person can’t be perfect.”
Another question is how he might lead the church on the priest abuse scandals.
“For us who have been so scarred by the abuse issues, this is a new person who seems humble and can maybe look at that again with different eyes and a different perspective,” Wolf Johnson said.
Sister Mary Jane Ferrier said she also wanted to know how the pope will address an ongoing dispute between most American nuns and the church. The group, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, was rebuked in a Vatican investigation report last year for spending too much time on poverty and economic justice and not enough time on abortion, among other findings.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Ferrier, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart. “We’ve been under this cloud for years.”
Maine has almost 200,000 Catholics, or about one-seventh of the state’s population.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: