Priests and parish staff at Catholic churches across Augusta huddled around office televisions for a first look at the church’s new leader Wednesday.
“Our staff gathered around the TV. We were just waiting for the white smoke,” said the Rev. Gerald Ragan, pastor of Saint Mary on the Hill Catholic Church and dean of the Catholic Deanery of Augusta. “We did not expect it so soon. It’s a bit of a surprise, but a wonderful surprise.”
One of the 115 cardinals tasked with electing a new pope has ties to Augusta, Ragan said.
Cardinal Edwin Frederick O’Brien was stationed at Fort Gordon as an Army chaplain in the early 1970s. He’s spent the week in Rome taking part in the conclave to select a new pope.
O’Brien last visited Augusta as the archbishop of Baltimore to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in 2010.
In his first address as pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, asked for prayers for himself and the retired Pope Benedict XVI.
“What so impressed me was his humility,” Ragan said. “The first thing he did was ask everybody to pray for his predecessor. It was a simple prayer, a prayer everybody knows – the Our Father. It’s a good sign.”
His new papal name is significant, Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah said in videotaped remarks Wednesday.
“He’s a Jesuit, and yet he took the name Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order, my order,” said Hartmayer, who celebrates a Mass for Pope Francis at Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah on Thursday. “He could have very easily taken the name of a Jesuit saint but instead he took the name of Francis, the first Pope to do so. ... I think our new Pope Francis took the name to represent the kind of ministry and kind of attention his Papacy is going to take. He is a champion of the poor.”
The new pope is unfamiliar to most Catholics but they will get to know him in time, said the Rev. Don Abbott, pastor of two small Catholic congregations in South Carolina: St. Gerard Catholic Church in Aiken and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Edgefield.
“A lot of people were really happy with Pope Benedict before he retired. He had a real presence. He visited the United States,” Abbott said. “We’d be looking forward to his (Pope Francis’) visit.”
Catholics can rest assured that he’s just the person God intended for the job, said the Rev. Michael Lubinsky, parochial vicar of Saint Mary on the Hill.
“God has chosen this man in the line of St. Peter,” he said.
The Rev. Gregory Wilson, pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, agreed.
“I truly believe that God has who he wants,” he said. “We’ve been blessed with great popes. I was sorry to see Benedict retire, but God’s in charge.”
The swift election of a “simple man of faith” like Pope Francis gives the church many reasons to celebrate, Ragan said.
“We feel blessed by new beginnings,” he said. “In a world where there’s too much darkness, this is a moment of light.”