Bishop: Pope Francis, the successor of Peter, is in our prayers

Bishop Joe Vásquez celebrated Mass in honor of Pope Francis March 14 at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin. (Photo by Shelley Metcalf)

By Bishop Joe S. Vásquez

Bishop of Austin

In his first public appearance as the Successor of Peter, Pope Francis asked his flock to pray for him before he offered his blessing. Catholics around the world are asking God’s abundant blessings upon our new Holy Father. We are still getting used to saying "Pope Francis." It was a surprise for many of us when he walked out on the balcony and was announced to the whole world as the pope.

Not knowing him personally, we consider him to be a great gift to us in this particular time in history. We are grateful for his ministry as the Successor of Peter and, more importantly, as one who seeks to direct our minds and hearts to Jesus Christ. We will get to know him better through the upcoming Holy Week and Easter celebrations. We will become familiar with his thoughts, his priorities and his perspective on many things. In time, we will come to understand his heart.

We are also very grateful for the many firsts of this particular papacy. He is the first pope from the Americas. Pope Francis was born and raised in Argentina, but his parents were both immigrants from northern Italy. His mother was a housewife and his father was a railroad worker. Blessed John Paul II wanted all of America to see itself as one, not as north, south, or central. From this perspective, we can proudly say that the leader of the Catholic Church is from our American continent.

Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit to become pope. The Jesuits are members of a religious order established by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, officially called the Society of Jesus. They run schools and universities throughout the world and are known for their intellectual capacity. Pope Francis is very bright. He is said to be fluent in Spanish, English, Latin, Italian, German and French. He’s a chemist, a scientist trained at Argentina’s largest public university. He finished his theological studies in Germany and is well versed in both theology and philosophy.

He is said to have a very good relationship with the Jewish people in Argentina. He showed solidarity and was outspoken in his calls for justice after a bombing at a Jewish community center in 1994 and he hosted a Kristallnacht memorial event at the Buenos Aires Cathedral. He also contributed to a strengthening of Christian-Muslim dialogue in Argentina.

In another first, he chose the name Francis after the renowned saint, Francis of Assisi. Various religions have embraced St. Francis because of his love for the poor and his simplicity of life. Pope Francis certainly embodies those beautiful characteristics. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he gave up his chauffeured car and instead used public transportation. He was a vocal advocate of the needs of the poor. He relished opportunities to visit the poor parishes in his archdiocese. He chose to live in a simple apartment and cook for himself. Once again, his humility was evident on the night of his election when he bowed and asked for the people to bless him before imparting his blessing on the world.

He is the first Latino pope and there is a strong sense of pride in the Latino community knowing that one of their own now sits in the Chair of Peter –– this brings great hope to Latino Catholics everywhere. The election of Pope Francis is a sign of the recognition and affirmation by the church of the importance of Latinos who make up 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.

An essential part of the ministry of a pope is to serve as a stimulus for unity. Pope Francis will invite fellow Catholics to join him in the mission of the church to foster unity in a world filled with discord. The day of his election was an exuberant celebration of unity in a body of believers, which embraced the world’s cultures, languages, faces, backgrounds and ethnicities.

Centuries ago, when Francis of Assisi began his path of ministry, he heard the voice of Jesus telling him, "Francis, go and build my church." Now Pope Francis receives a similar charge. We pray for him and commit ourselves to share in that worthy task.

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