Local priests, bishop surprised, pleased to have pope from Americas

Like people all over the world Wednesday, many Catholics in the Adirondacks were glued to their television sets, which were glued to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City as the world waited for the new pope to be announced.

The Rev. John Yonkovig was watching TV at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, where he is pastor, during the suspenseful hour in which the world knew cardinals had chosen a new pope but didn’t yet know who it was.

“I am surprised they did it so fast,” he said of the voting cardinals, whose conclave began Tuesday. “Of course, they had the whole weekend. With 150 in that room, I’m sure a lot of conversations had taken place.

“Still, I thought it wouldn’t be until Thursday or Friday.”

Shortly afterward, when the world had learned that Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina had become Pope Francis, Yonkovig commented, “He sounds remarkable, doesn’t he?”

He noted that Bergoglio had not been in a recent Time magazine article profiling the supposed top 10 possibilities.

“I would say that’s really the power of the Holy Spirit,” Yonkovig said. “It defies our logic of who would be the best choice.

“This man sounds like an exceptionally humble man who cooks his own meals and rides public transit.”

The Rev. Bill Muench, temporary administrator of the Catholic churches in Saranac Lake, Bloomingdale, Gabriels and Lake Clear, also mentioned that few media had included Bergoglio in their lists of likely candidates.

“You keep saying that the Holy Spirit will give us a wonderful surprise – and then you cross your fingers,” Muench said with a laugh.

Muench added “three things that impressed me already: He was archbishop in Buenos Aires in a very turbulent time. He asked the crowd to silently pray for (him), and this huge crowd quieted right down. And third, he chose the name Francis, and that’s very important for sure, simply because it brings up the image of St. Francis (of Assisi), who was a very unusual saint because he didn’t follow that usual mold.

“(St.) Francis got a vision in which the Lord said, ‘Repair my church,’ so we’re hoping that’s what he’s going to do.”

The Rev. Douglas Decker, pastor of the churches in Tupper Lake, said, “Of course we’re all quite surprised that we’re getting out of the group of Europe, but I think it’s a good step to get to the Third World countries because they have a different perspective, a different view of church – more contemporary, you could say.”

Bishop Terry LaValley, head of the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg which covers all of northern New York, was in Plattsburgh when he heard news of the new pope. He had been driving much of the day, so he hadn’t read anything about Pope Francis’ background yet when he talked to the Enterprise by phone. He, too, was “very much surprised that one was named this quickly.

“I really am not familiar at all with the man, but I am extremely happy that we have a new pope,” LaValley said. “I am particularly pleased that we have a pope from the Americas. The largest segment of Catholics today come from Latin and South America, so it’s wonderful that we have a pope from there.”

LaValley has met several of the other cardinals named as possibilities, such as Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Timothy Dolan of New York, Sean O’Malley of Boston and Peter Turkson of Ghana. Asked if he had any favorites, he said no.

“I have total trust in the Spirit and in the men whose task it was to select the man, and I just left it up to the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We’re in very good hands.”

With its French-Canadian and Irish settlement, northern New York has a relatively large Catholic population. The Diocese of Ogdensburg estimates that about a fifth of the region’s roughly 490,000 people are at least nominally Catholic, although not all are active churchgoers.

Like other U.S. dioceses, this one faces the challenges of a declining number of people in the pews on Sundays and, even more acute, a declining number of priests. Nevertheless, parishes are still important and lively hubs in the rural communities of the North Country.