Pope Francis’s Election Hits Home for Brooklyn Parish

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St. Francis Catholic Church in Brooklyn celebrates the election of a pope that shares its name and culture.

Fr. Juan Jose Gonzalez stands under a mural at St. Francis Church in Brooklyn featuring the parish’s namesake saint.

A little birdie told Fr. Juan Jose Gonzalez who the new Pope would be.

“I still remember on the day of the election, right before the white smoke came out of that chimney there was a seagull, a bird that came and landed on that chimney, and he just sat there looking around,” the pastor of Brooklyn’s St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church recounted to a packed congregation on March 19, the night of Pope Francis’s installation. “Maybe that little bird knew something already. He already knew who was going to be Pope, and that little bird was probably announcing to all the other birds and animals, ‘Guess who’s going to be Pope! And guess what name he will choose! The name of our friend, Francis!’”

The election of Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is especially significant for St. Francis of Assisi Church, because the Pope chose the name Francis, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of animals and the Brooklyn parish’s namesake. For the church’s predominantly Hispanic and Caribbean parishioners, the election of Francis, who served as a cardinal in Argentina, also signifies a shifting dynamic that brings the Catholic Church closer to home, both culturally and geographically.

“He is Latin American. For the first time it’s not a European one,” said Luis Lopez, a St. Francis parishioner and 45-year Brooklyn resident from Puerto Rico. “So we’re very happy about him, to have a Pope that speaks Spanish.”

The Mass at St. Francis celebrating the new Pope’s election reflected the parishioners’ diverse cultural backgrounds—and was said in alternating Spanish, English, and French Creole.

“We are the Church,” Fr. Gonzalez proclaimed during the homily on the night of the Pope’s installation. “He is one of us, someone from the Americas, someone who understands our experience in the New World.”

Fr. Gonzalez, a son of immigrant parents from Guadalajara, Mexico, feels that Pope Francis relates to immigrants and Latin American faithful in a way that previous popes may not have. “He speaks our language, Spanish,” Fr. Gonzalez said. “He’s Latino. He understands the Latin American experience. He understands Latin American Catholicism…He understands because he’s coming from that experience, and that’s the experience of my parents, that’s the experience of many, many people in Mexico, and that’s also the experience of millions of people in this country, who live in this country, who come from Mexico.”

The parishioners at St. Francis seemed equally elated with the selection of Pope Francis.

“I’m so happy, I’m excited, I have no words. I just love the guy, I don’t even know him, but I love him already,” echoed exultant St. Francis parishioner Farah Jean, originally from Haiti. “I love his humility, that’s one thing about him, and the fact that he’s different, and you see that he wants to bring change.”

Winnie James, a longtime Brooklyn resident from the Caribbean island of Dominica, felt hopeful that the world might see Catholics differently now that Pope Francis is at the helm. “I spent the whole day in church praying for the Pope, praying for myself, praying for the parishioners, praying for the world,” said James.

“We never in the whole life of the Church had a person who became Pope from the New World. This is our first, and I think that this will really, really bring more Catholics together, and bring more Catholics to the Church,” said James. “They will see the Church in a different light.”

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