OUE VIEW: White puff of smoke beautiful to local Catholics

Published 6:56 am Sunday, March 17, 2013

Never before have so many south Louisianaians been so focused on a small chimney in a faraway country, awaiting a puff of smoke to herald a new spiritual leader.

But when that initial glimpse of white smoke appeared local residents and the more than 250,000 faithful who had squeezed their way into St. Peter’s Square cheered. A little more than one hour later, those cheers turned to tears when Pope Francis greeted his new flock and immediately deviated from tradition by asking those gathered to pray for him and with him.

It was a moving moment, even witnessed via the electronic media from thousands of miles away.

Catholicism is deeply rooted in southeast Louisiana, evident by the River Region being comprised of three parishes named after saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and another five throughout the state, with the exception of St. Tammany (St. Tammany is not recognized by the church). So it was no surprise the conclave of cardinals this past week was viewed with intense interest from area residents.

Cardinals less than the age of 80 had gathered to elect a successor to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who only weeks before had stunned the Catholic community by announcing his resignation, which was effective Feb. 28. Benedict, who was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his papacy, was a traditionalist, an apologist of old-school dogma, leaving some Catholics clamoring for a new direction, someone younger and perhaps more progressive.

Although far too early for any critical evaluation, the cardinals appear to have made the right choice in the election of Francis, previously Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. He is a man of great humility and substance, someone who embraces any opportunity to be among his flock.

As a member of the Society of Jesus he is steeped in the tradition of education and social justice. The selection of his papal name, Francis, speaks volumes about the man and his vision. St Francis of Assisi lived an affluent lifestyle as a younger man but walked away from his wealth to be among the poor.

Francis has embraced a similar lifestyle.

He chose not to live in the archbishop’s residence in Buenos Aires; rather, he took up residence in an apartment and tended to an elderly brother Jesuit. He rode public transportation daily to the chancery instead of utilizing the private car offered to him.

Even after being elected to his religion’s highest office, as a successor to St. Peter, Francis rode from St. Peter’s Basilica to dinner in a minivan with his fellow cardinals rather than the limo, which has been the tradition. His is a message of unity and evangelization. He is a voice of the poor, a champion of the underprivileged.

Admittedly, a few hours or even days do not define a papacy but at first blush, Francis, a conservative who is an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage and abortion, appears to possess the authenticity and warmth of Pope John Paul II and the vision of Pope Paul VI.

To be sure, Francis inherits daunting challenges that will test his spirituality and require him to make wrenching decisions. But those are for later.

This is a time of celebration, a time to welcome a new “Papa.” For many south Louisiana Catholics a puff of white smoke never looked so beautiful.