When Father Jim Sichko, pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church, announced early Wednesday afternoon that the church would celebrate a mass in honor of the new pope the evening after he was chosen, the local priest didn’t expect that would happen until Friday or even Saturday.
However, not long after plans for the special mass were announced, white smoke billowed from a Vatican chimney, signifying that a new leader of the world’s Catholics had been elected.
While the St. Mark congregation didn’t have much notice, the mass in honor of the new Pope Francis was well attended, Sichko said.
Although hearing that the next pope would be from the western hemisphere was a surprise, Sichko said the short time needed to elect a new pope was a bigger surprise. However unexpected they may have been, both developments bode well for the church’s future, he said.
Someday a pope will be chosen from the United States, Sichko said, by electing a pope not just from outside the Vatican but outside of Europe, the cardinals have recognized how far the global Catholic community extends.
Just as they had done eight years ago, when Pope Benedict was elected, the students of St. Mark Catholic School wasted no time Thursday in writing to Pope Francis to tell him they were praying for him.
Included in the messages that will be mailed to the Vatican are praying hands the children had colored with crayons.
Some included a greeting in Spanish, the Argentine pope’s native language, and some invited him to visit them in Richmond later this year when Francis has scheduled a trip to the United States.
St. Mark’s adult parishioners have felt an immediate connection with the new pope, Sichko said.
A church member who met with the priest Friday said when Francis speaks on television he feels as if the pope is speaking through the screen directly to him.
Sichko said he has been impressed with the new pope’s humility, simplicity and spontaneity, which were immediately evident after his election.
When the cardinals came to kiss the new pope’s ring and pledge their obedience, Francis chose not to ascend the papal throne for the ritual. He also continued to wear the simple black shoes that recently had been given to him and the cross he wore as archbishop of Buenos Aires instead of the jeweled gold cross customarily worn by the pope. And as he conversed with the cardinals, Francis also spoke spontaneously instead of following a carefully scripted routine as has been traditional.
“Pope Francis is calling us back to what the church is really all about, and that is Jesus Christ,” Sichko said.
The new pope has the intellect of Pope Benedict, the charisma of Pope John Paul II and the heart of Jesus, the St. Mark priest said.
Francis is likely to streamline the Vatican bureaucracy, just as he reorganized the offices for the archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Sichko said.
Pope Benedict knew what he was doing when he announced his retirement during Lent, Sichko said.
Lent is a time of purification, of letting go, of reflection and renewal, he said during an interview in the St. Mark Parish Hall as people came and went for the church’s Friday Lenten fish fry.
The eating of fish - a lighter, simpler food than other meats - carries with it the spiritual and personal themes of Lent, Sichko said.
“Pope John Paul II taught us how to die, Pope Benedict has taught us how to let go and surrender to God,” he said, good lessons not just for Lent but for all times.
Bill Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or at 624-6690.