The historic selection of a pope from South America, the choice of his new name, and his initial demeanor of humility before the waiting crowd on Wednesday speak volumes for the future, suburban Catholics said.
Even Pope Francis' request of a blessing first from the faithful before he blessed them signaled the essence of the saint's name he had chosen -- simplicity and humility, said the Rev. John Trout, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Libertyville.
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"He is representing the voice of the people," Trout said. "The cardinals have chosen well."
While scandal has filled the Catholic church worldwide in recent decades, Pope John Paul II promoted the evangelization of the church and Pope Benedict approved new language to enhance the Catholic Mass. Now, the future is in the hands of Pope Francis and the hearts of his followers, said religious leaders and others around the suburbs.
"The faithful want to see their church in the same way, faithful, and want it to reflect their wishes, hopes and dreams for the future," said Trout.
Having the first South American pope in history is extremely meaningful, said Pastor Jesus Dominguez of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Elgin, the largest Hispanic parish in the Diocese of Rockford.
"I think we will relate much better to him," said Dominguez, a native of Mexico. "He will understand much more the situation of the Latin American countries, and the needs of the large Hispanic community migrating to the United States."
The mere fact that Pope Francis chose not to wear elaborate robes, as is the custom of that moment of first meeting the faithful, also signaled his simplicity, said the Rev. Thomas Baima, vice rector of Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, the major seminary and school of theology for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"By wearing that simple white cassock, we can read an awful lot into that," said Baima. "He has been known for his own humility and simplicity."
Pope Francis, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is also the first Jesuit priest to become pope and his extensive work with the poor signals where his priorities may be as pope, said Baima.
Bishop David J. Malloy of the Diocese of Rockford said that he welcomes Pope Francis with joy.
"The awesome responsibility entrusted to him and the 265 holy men before him truly affect all people of the world," said Malloy. "Congratulations to the cardinals of the world who, in concert with the Holy Spirit, chose this new successor to St. Peter.
Bishop Daniel Conlon of the Joliet Diocese said the election might have had "lots of surprises" but the mission remained the same.
"I believe the cardinals chose the man they thought would make the best pope," Conlon said. "The fact that he's from Argentina and a Jesuit, I think to them didn't matter at all. He's going to do the job any pope would do. At the same time, I think he will bring his own stamp to the task."
Francis "undoubtedly will try to address" controversies facing the church, Conlon said, though his primary responsibility is spreading the gospel.
"The church has had problems for 2,000 years," Conlon said. "The problems might be different, but that (the church) has problems is nothing new. The pope cannot see his primary responsibility as solving problems, but preaching the gospel and drawing people to Christ."
Conlon added that a papal election is "an exciting moment in the life of the Catholic Church and a chance for parishioners to regroup.
"It's a reminder to the members of the church to focus on why Christ established the church and for all of us to pay attention to the mission and be creative in approaching and fulfilling that mission," he said.
The founders of the Jesuit order originally were "opposed to Jesuits doing anything other than being Jesuits," but "higher church authorities have found them to be the best person for the job," said Susan A. Ross, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
She said a Jesuit in a leadership role was "not totally unusual," noting Canada's archbishop of Ottawa is a Jesuit.
The order was founded in the 16th century to help in the work of the pope during the time of the reformation. And the order has largely worked in education, with over 28 Jesuit colleges and universities across the country, she said.
Ross described the new pope as "in the mold of popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, "theologically conservative and socially progressive."
Jesuits, Ross said, typically go through a training process that is double that of diocesan priests, a total of 10 to 12 years from the novitiate stage to priesthood. What does having a Jesuit pope mean for area Jesuit schools? "It certainly highlights the significance of the Jesuit community and its influence on the church. ... That our ministry is education," said Ross.
Eight-year-old Diego Prado watched news reports about the new pope with his second-grade classmates at Santa Maria del Popolo School in Mundelein.
Diego said he was surprised when the new pope was revealed to be from a Spanish speaking country.
"I'm actually pretty happy that someone from somewhere else has got a chance now," Diego said.
Mundelein resident Roberto Gonzalez was late to pick his son, Marco, up from school because of the announcement. He, too, was excited about the pope's heritage.
"As a Latino, I'm excited to have that representation," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he also likes the pope's humble roots and his reputation as a reformer. "He's a man of the people," Gonzalez said.
Santa Maria parishioner Maura Bodo said she was "thrilled to death" by the cardinals' selection.
"Certainly he's going to represent a new aspect (of the church)," said Bodo, of Mundelein.
Sister Madelyn Gould of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Naperville was ecstatic.
"I obviously don't know him but everything being said is music to my ears," said Gould. "Of course, I'm a Franciscan sister, and so the fact that he took Francis as the name is hopeful for me and very significant."
Gould was especially pleased to hear Francis "stands for and promotes social justice, and that he's a very simple person himself," she said.
"They say he cooks his own meals and lives in a simple apartment, so he's not given to a lot of the pomp and circumstance but is more a humble servant of God," Gould said.
The period of hope many Catholics feel before a new leader is chosen continues with the election of Pope Francis because he comes from the Jesuit tradition of academics, discipline and "no nonsense," said Benedictine University President William Carroll.
"That speaks something to the world in that the other cardinals see now it's time for a person to come in and get the job done to deal with some of these issues in the church," said Carroll, who leads the Catholic university in Lisle. "Hope still lingers that this could be a pretty special papacy."
Carroll hopes the new pope will challenge Catholic universities to continue their tradition of inviting people from all perspectives to an open dialogue to test ideas and find solutions. But the pontiff's biggest challenges will be "sexual scandals, a lack of priests, the issue of married priests, the role of women in the church and the lack of transparency," he said.
Pope Francis' election came as good news to those immersed in Argentine culture, including Marie Carrasco, co-owner of Tango Argentina Club in West Chicago. She has a French background while her husband and business partner Ruben hails from Argentina. They aren't Catholic but they were celebrating nonetheless.
"It's nice to have someone from Argentina being represented in something so worldwide. It feels good," Marie Carrasco said. "For us, it doesn't have the same significance it does for Catholics, but it was a big surprise and very unexpected."
• Daily Herald Staff Writers Elena Ferrarin, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Kerry Lester, Russell Lissau, Josh Stockinger and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.