While the world’s Catholics are rejoicing over the new Holy Father, Pope Francis, his election is even more momentous for Latin Americans, particularly those of Argentinian heritage. Among those bursting with pride is Father Francisco Walker, pastor of St. Agatha’s Church, Sunset Park, who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, just like the new pope.
“It is a complete joy,” Father Walker said on Thursday afternoon. “We are so happy and proud of him.
“Of course, we want to have someone represent Latin America and all of the Americas in such a high position. I feel humbled and honored that he was born in Argentina.”
Back in Buenos Aires, Father Walker was raised in a religious family, rich in vocations. Two of his brothers are priests and his late uncle, Father Eduardo Peralta Ramos, and cousin Father Juan Luis Moyano, were both Jesuit priests. His uncle, Father Ramos, knew the future pope when he served as the Jesuits’ provincial superior in Argentina.
“My other uncle used to cook pasta for him (then-Father Jorge Bergoglio) and he loved it,” he said.
Following the announcement Wednesday afternoon, he ran to his computer to discuss the good news via e-mail with relatives back home, including his brother, Father Carlos Walker, I.V.E., superior general of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, a religious order founded 29 years ago in Buenos Aires.
“He was able to give Communion at the cardinals’ Mass before the conclave,” Father Walker said of his brother, Father Carlos, who formerly served in the Brooklyn Diocese. He already sent him a letter assuring his order’s “support and prayers.”
While Father Walker never met the future Holy Father, he heard much about his ministry and focus on family values through the years.
“He was very vocal that the Church must stand for the poor and those alienated and exploited by society,” Father Walker said.
Prophet of Good Values
“He always sided with the poor, the most vulnerable, the children in the streets, the young girls brought to prostitution,” he said. “In Argentina, he really was a prophet of the good values of the Catholic Church.”
As for Pope Francis’ personal life, the priest says the media has correctly highlighted his down-to-earth style, most notably his use of public transportation.
“He likes to mingle with people,” he said. “He also likes to cook, likes soccer (and roots) for a team (San Lorenzo de Almagro) that was founded by a priest, and he likes to tango.”
Although the former cardinal is a man of “wisdom and understanding,” Father Walker admits he didn’t expect the election of a Latin American or a Jesuit, much less a man of 76 years with one lung – the other reportedly having been removed in his youth after an infection.
Yet, he believes the pope’s life and ministerial experiences will serve him well in his new ministry.
“The election of Pope Francis sends a clear message that the Church wants someone who is pastoral, emphasizing evangelization and spirituality, but also administratively savvy.
“Pope Francis walks into a difficult situation as there are many issues that not only the Church but the world is looking at,” he said.
Among those issues, he said, will be reorganizing the Curia, addressing secularism and promoting evangelization, particularly in areas characterized by poverty, illiteracy and conflict. “This pope has to make the Church a place where people feel at home,” he said.
Another challenge will be living in the unblinking eye of the media. “The kind of scrutiny a pope has these days is overwhelming,” he said. “You are, in an instant click, all over the world.”
While global visibility has its drawbacks, it can also be used in the service of the Church.The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará Sisters (S.S.V.M.) at St. Edith Stein Monastery in Borough Park were part of a global audience getting its first glimpse of the new pope via the Vatican TV website.
Hearing the name of an Argentinian cardinal was a “great surprise and joy” for the Brooklyn-based Sisters. Not only are five of them from Argentina, but their religious order, which is part of the same religious family as the Institute of the Incarnate Word, was also founded in Argentina.
Mother Superior Maria del Redentor, S.S.V.M., who hails from San Rafael, Mendoza, in southern Argentina, said the Sisters began talking about “what he is going to do for the Church, for Latin America, for Argentina.”
Her prayer is that Pope Francis “may help those countries suffering from war. We have Sisters in the Middle East, in Gaza and Syria. We pray everyday for their safety and for the people there.”
Though the Sisters refrain from telephone calls and e-mails during Lent, relatives back home have been in touch to say how happy and proud they are of the pope. They are blowing horns in the streets and praying in the cathedral.
Sister Verbo Encarnado, S.S.V.M., also from San Rafael, Mendoza, explained that the Sisters “feel a double responsibility” in praying for the new pontiff because he is both the Vicar of Christ and the first pope of the Americas.
“I don’t know what the Holy Spirit will inspire in him but he chose the name Francis and Christ asked St. Francis of Assisi to rebuild His Church,” Sister Verbo Encarnado said. “He could be our renewal.”