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'Breath of fresh air': Women religious welcome Pope Francis

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Nuns talk in St Peter's Square after newly elected Pope Francis appeared on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City.

As the last puffs of white smoke dissipated at the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday, women religious in the United States received the news of the pope's election with a mix of surprise and hope that he would shepherd the church through its current crisis.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis, a decision the nuns considered unexpected but auspicious.

"I think it's just wonderful," said Sister Michele of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady Mother of the Church. “The Holy Spirit worked through the cardinals, and God put in the man that he wants."

Francis is the first pope to be a member of the Society of Jesus, an order founded in the 16th century by St. Ignatius Loyola. Its members, known as Jesuits, take a vow of poverty and are known for their scholarship and work among the poor, which is seen as a draw to nuns, who devote their lives to charity and caring for the less fortunate.

Nuns flock to the Vatican and celebrate as new pope is elected

“There’s a lot of promise in that (he’s a Jesuit),” said Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, which promotes women's ordination as priests. "It’s a breath of fresh air," she said, adding that Jesuits "are known to be more progressive."

The Sisters of Life, an order founded in 1991 that helps pregnant women and organizes a retreat for women who have had abortions, welcomed the news with "great joy," Sister Mary Elizabeth said.

“We're praying for [Francis], and we’re excited to see what the Holy Spirit brings," she said. "We’re all part of the family of God; we would rejoice no matter where he came from."

Sister Mary Elizabeth added that her order believes there’s a complementarity between men and women in the church, and they embrace their role modeled after the Virgin Mary, "a humble handmaid of the Lord."

The church's attitude toward women and its teachings on contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage are blamed by some for the decline in morale among Catholics. Last year, thousands stepped up in defense of American nuns after the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog issued a report questioning their loyalty to some church teachings, including the nuns' lack of outspokenness on issues such as gay marriage, abortion and contraception. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the head of the watchdog group before he was elected pope in 2005.)

The report targeted the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.

Sister Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the Leadership Conference, said Wednesday that while the sisters were surprised by the conclave's decision, they welcomed Francis with "heartfelt prayer."

"As a conference of leaders of orders of Catholic sisters in the United States, we welcome Pope Francis I’s spiritual leadership and look forward to working with him in carrying forward the Gospel message," LCWR's statement read.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted last month shows that 46 percent of U.S. Catholics surveyed think the new pope should "move in new directions," while 51 percent say he should "maintain traditional positions."

Hanna, of the Women's Ordination Conference, says she has "a lot of hope" that the new pope will address issues such as gay rights, divorce and contraception, which cause some women to feel excluded from the church.

And, she added, she hopes Francis will reopen the discussion on women's ordination.

Last year, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the priests supporting women's ordination, saying their desire to change the church was a "desperate push" driven by their "own preferences and ideas." Instead, Benedict urged the "radicalism of obedience."

But Hanna and Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a woman priest who was ordained in 2008, think the movement is growing and the time is ripe for women's voices to be heard.

"We deserve a better church than what we’ve been given," Hanna said.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

Cardinals from around the world gathered in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church following then-Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. On the second day of the conclave, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, taking on the name Pope Francis.