Daily mass Thursday at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church started like a thousand other masses.
But this was no regular mass, filled mainly with ritual.
The first Roman Catholic service since Wednesday’s election of a new pope included more than a dozen mentions of Pope Francis. Almost all in attendance wanted to talk and hear about their church’s new leader.
This mass even featured a question-and-answer session for the packed house.
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Father John Giuliani, priest and provost from Rock Hill’s Oratory, the administrative arm of area Catholic churches, gladly fielded all inquiries with a smile. Many Catholics Thursday wondered about the man who one day was Jorge Bergoglio, cardinal from Argentina, and moments later was a world leader.
Giuliani, the priest quick with a joke, asked the crowd: “Who hear even heard of this man before he was chosen? Who is this guy?”
Almost nobody had. The crowd laughed and clapped because it was true.
“It’s like Moses; God takes some out of the wilderness,” Giuliani said of the new pope.
But even with a light tone, there were many prayers for a church and new pope in a difficult time. Many Catholics Thursday were elated that the new pope is such a common man of the people that he cooks his own meals, rides buses and eschews the lavish trappings of his office.
Taking the name Francis is symbolic of this pope’s belief and mission of helping the poor, Giuliani told an approving crowd. The Franciscans are a Catholic order founded by St. Francis of Assisi that takes vows of poverty. Pope Francis himself is of the Jesuit order.
“He has shown with his actions what we hold, that true wealth is with the Gospel,” Giuliani said.
No one was more taken than Tricia Kuhlkin of Tega Cay, a devout Catholic who started the Pilgrims’ Inn charity for the poor in Rock Hill more than three decades ago. Kuhlkin is retired, but her vision of a place for the homeless, the hungry, unwed mothers – all of those cast aside by so much of society – remains.
“The church will always be the works that we do for those less fortunate, those who are in need,” Kuhlkin said. “The pope taking the name of Francis is more than a name. It is his way and the way the church should be.”
Another Fort Mill Catholic, Jennie Campanaro, said St. Francis worked for the people of the world, the poor of the world, and this pope will do the same. Campanaro even wears a Franciscan cross.
“This is truly wonderful for Catholics,” Campanaro said.
The Pope’s Latin American heritage – he was archbishop of Buenos Aires – is another exciting change and a first for Catholics.
“It is like a new beginning, where this new pope will not go with the norms,” said Catholic Sabina Fernandez. “Almost half of the world’s Catholics are from Latin America. And now the pope is from there, too.”
York and Lancaster counties are home to about 10,000 Catholic families attending six churches alongside a large number of Latin American Catholics, who have emigrated to this area from countries across the Americas.
St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill is a blossoming parish that has grown to more than 2,500 members in recent years as Fort Mill has boomed. Next to the current church, a new $8 million sanctuary is under construction.
Inside the new building Thursday, two immigrants from Mexico who came to America with their work ethic and Catholic faith more than 20 years ago stopped their labor of building a church to say how each is thrilled that the new pope is from Latin America.
“It is great pride,” said Miguel Aeros. “Never before has there been a pope from Latin America.”
It is that new beginning with a new pope that Father Giuliani and a few St. Philip Neri parishioners talked about during a walk through the under-construction building after the historic mass that was all about Pope Francis.
There will be in this great new church places for teens, weddings, wakes, masses, food – and places to reach out to the poor.
The Oratory in Rock Hill was founded in the 1930s for the simple reason of trying to help the poor. The six churches that have grown from that little building are Catholic families that are largely immigrants from other parts of the country and other nations.
The Catholic church in York County has succeeded because of the charity of the people toward the poorest in our communities.
That’s why all those prayers were said for Pope Francis in that first mass Thursday, and why his name was evoked so often. As Giuliani the priest said, the new pope is a renewal of the church that must be committed to the less fortunate of York County, South Carolina, America and the world.
And the church is the Catholic people. The pope, and 1.2 billion others.