Catholic clergy say Pope Francis breathes hope into church

Local Catholics this week hailed the selection of Pope Francis — the first pontiff from the Americas who is known for his devotion to the poor and mission outreach — and expressed hope that it would reinvigorate a church rocked by scandal and grappling with disenfranchisement.

Before taking his papal name Wednesday to succeed Benedict XVI as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis was known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, where he built a reputation as a Jesuit, ascribing to the religious order’s focus on poverty and social justice issues.

Full L.A. Times coverage: Election of a pope

The pope’s name choice — after St. Francis of Assisi — reflects his humility and sincerity, said Father Dick Albarano of Saint Francis Xavier Parish in Burbank.

It’s particularly powerful since when St. Francis started his ministry in the Catholic Church in the 12th Century, “God spoke to him and said, ‘Francis, rebuild my church,’” Albarano said. “Hopefully that’s going to be the motto of Pope Francis — we need to be rebuilt, we need to be reformed.”

Len Goswitz, parish manager for Incarnation Catholic Church in Glendale, said Pope Francis is being greeted with high hopes among the parish’s staff and membership of some 2,400 families.

“One of his most outstanding qualities is a genuine love for the poor and just his humility. Clearly, he’s very highly educated, but it sounds like he is also down-to-Earth,” Goswitz said. “Just the brief speech he gave showed the wisdom that comes out of him and that he does speak in just a warm and simple way, which is so refreshing.”

Scarlet Gross, an assistant youth minister with the Life Teen Ministry program at Holy Family Church in Glendale, said celebration of a new pope also helps to energize young Catholics whose faith has been tested under the cloud of priest sex abuse scandals.

The omnipresent spotlight on allegations against church officials “makes it difficult for them to be proudly Catholic and share their faith with others,” Gross said. But being able to celebrate a new pope “really helps, because they are able to say they’re excited to be Catholic without being embarrassed because someone’s going to talk about how a priest abused kids."

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There are other hopes that have been attached to the new papacy.

Juan Martinez, associate provost of diversity and director of Hispanic ministries at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said the selection of a Latin American pope has special significance for Southern California’s large number of Spanish-speaking Catholics.

But the Archdiocese of Los Angeles also has a “strong representation” of people who are poor — a segment of the global population that Pope Francis is well practiced in serving.

That too, in addition to his Latin American roots, is not lost on the area’s clergy.

“Pope Francis comes from a very humble background representing Christ and the love of God in Argentina, and he will bring those experiences into his new role as pope,” said Associate Pastor Mike Perucho at Holy Family. “He brings with him a sense of humility that can bring about an invigorating spirit.”

On that note, Father Albarano in Burbank said the church needs to be made more relevant and modernized.

“I think the Spirit has spoken powerfully in giving us just the man to do that,” Albarano said. “We can’t just be a remnant of past ages. Tradition is important, but progression is also important.”

Most of the world’s Catholics, he said, are in South America and Africa, so the choice, while monumental, is appropriate.

“We are no longer just, and haven’t been just a European church,” he said. “We’re a worldwide church."

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-- Jason Wells, Joe Piasecki and Alene Tchekmedyian, Times Community News

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