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updated: 3/14/2013 5:22 PM

St. Francis students applaud pope's name choice

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  • Diane Mercadante, director of pastoral ministry at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, talks about the new pope while standing by an elevator with a mosaic of St. Francis.

       Diane Mercadante, director of pastoral ministry at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, talks about the new pope while standing by an elevator with a mosaic of St. Francis.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Page teaches freshmen in religion class at St. Francis High School in Wheaton. Students at the school are thrilled the new pope has named himself after St. Francis of Assisi.

       Michael Page teaches freshmen in religion class at St. Francis High School in Wheaton. Students at the school are thrilled the new pope has named himself after St. Francis of Assisi.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • A mural of St. Francis of Assisi in the gym at his namesake school in Wheaton.

       A mural of St. Francis of Assisi in the gym at his namesake school in Wheaton.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Students and faculty at Wheaton's St. Francis High School say they're thrilled the new pope has named himself after St. Francis of Assisi.

       Students and faculty at Wheaton's St. Francis High School say they're thrilled the new pope has named himself after St. Francis of Assisi.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

Pope Francis and his historic choice to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi is drawing praise from a high school in Wheaton that also bears the name of the humble friar.

The election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, 76, as pope marks the first Latin American and the first Jesuit pontiff in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. He also is the first pope to choose the name Francis, after the Italian man who rejected his family's wealth and worldly possessions to live a simple life ministering to the poor.

"There's a real love for St. Francis of Assisi and a real commitment at St. Francis High School to living that way, so to see a pope take that name, that's very exciting for us, that we are kind of walking the same way," says Diane Mercadante, the high school's director of pastoral ministry, who has received text messages and spotted Facebook posts from alumni applauding the name choice.

The papal name is considered one of the first clues at the direction of the new papacy. Mercadante says the name signals the pope's "real demonstration" of his faith by caring for the poor and sick. He is known for visiting a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of AIDS patients.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the office's palatial home, refused a limousine in favor of riding the bus and often cooked his own meals.

Mercadante says that "working faith" appeals to students.

"He got rid of all the trimmings," Mercadante said. "He's not interested in the appearance of being a Christian; he's interested in living the life. I think young people look for authenticity, they want somebody that really is the real deal."

Students lingered after the school day to watch and discuss the announcement in the classroom of Michael Page, who teaches religion. Page said students immediately identified the papal name with the school's own namesake.

"St. Francis of Assisi was so loved for his relentless practicality," Page said. "He was so practical about his faith. If it didn't make a practical difference for people, he didn't spend time on it."

As the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, Francis faces a church mired by the clerical sex abuse scandal and growing secularism.

Francis of Assisi confronted leadership issues in the medieval church, Page said.

"There was definitely a divide there between everyday faithful people who were trying to live their lives and what was going on in the institution," Page said. "St. Francis of Assisi looked at that and said, 'This is a gulf that's becoming far too wide, and we need to breach that,' and the way that he did, again, goes back to his relentless practicality about how to live the faith."

St. Francis sophomore Brayden Poe is excited about the future of the church after the announcement of Pope Francis.

"The way that he models Franciscan values seems like things will go well," Poe said.

Kristen Ras, who teaches a sophomore religion class, said students already are gravitating to Francis after what she called his humble and down-to-earth first message as pope, in which he asked for a blessing from the faithful before he blessed them.

"Just his demeanor is very inviting, which is really important for the church and the youth," she said.

Ras said the campus is buzzing with pride "in a humble way."

"We love our patron so much," Ras said. "We have his words and his prayers and his image all over our building. So to know that in a worldwide spectrum people are really going to pay attention to him and his life and hopefully learn from it, it's like when you're a parent and you see your kid accomplish something. Your heart claps for them."

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