A retired Oklahoma City priest ran his finger along a zucchetto that has aged to a stately shade of cream.
The Rev. Marvin Leven, 88, said the memento — a pristine white skullcap worn by popes — was given to him by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s when Leven was young seminarian visiting Rome.
Tuesday, Leven's search for the papal favor was sparked by the televised inauguration Mass of Pope Francis in Vatican City. The new pope — formerly an Argentine cardinal, was elected to the papacy March 13. The first non-European pope in many centuries, Francis succeeds Pope Benedict XVI, who stunned the world by resigning.
Leven and Georganna Oberst, 87, said they each have memories of numerous popes — six in all — from Pope Pius XII whose papacy lasted from 1939-58 to Benedict, whose seven-year papacy began in 2005 and ended in February.
Oberst, also of Oklahoma City, said she was in nurse's training during World War II, and she realized after the war how much Pope Pius XII did to save Jews being persecuted by the Nazis, although she said some people have criticized him for not doing enough.
Then there was John XXIII, whose papacy was from 1958 to 1963, who started what became known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II. Leven said if he had to pick a favorite from among the men whose papacies intersected with his own life and ministerial career, it would be John XXIII “because he brought change.”
“He created changes in the church's liturgy and refreshed the openness of the church. People got to know the church better, and I think it was a good thing,” she said.
Leven said the papal leader elected after John XXIII death, Pope Paul VI, also sought to bring change to the Vatican by attempting to set up local bishops meetings for their input. The priest said Pope John Paul I, whose papacy began in 1978, was his favorite of all the pontiffs because “he was the pope with personality.”
“He was a man who not only loved being pope, but he showed it by smiling and showing his love for the people. I liked him because he was personable.”
The papacy of John Paul I lasted only 33 days when he died of heart failure.
Leven said he felt that Pope John Paul II, the much beloved traveling pontiff, like several of his predecessors, tried to curtail the authoritarianism of the Vatican. The priest said when this proved difficult, John Paul II decided to emphasize evangelization.
“He took Jesus to the world,” Leven said.
Meanwhile, the octogenarians said they have high hopes for the new pontiff, particularly because he chose to honor St. Francis of Assisi as his papal namesake.
Leven said he also is pleased that the new pope seems bent on making changes.
“St. Francis of Assisi was know as a renovator of the church, so if he (Pope Francis) lives up to his namesake, we can look for a renewal,” Leven said. “He's anti-establishment and a bishop from out in the parishes and knows what we must do in order to spread the gospel.”
Oberst said she watched a portion of the televised inauguration Mass and came away with the sense that Pope Francis wants to reach out to everyday people.
“It's good to see him be kind and respectful of everyone,” she said.
“He's no intellectual like Benedict was, but we need all kinds. I think it's good to have variety.”
When asked what he would say to the new pope if he had an opportunity for a personal chat, Leven smiled.
“I've always said if I were pope, I'd replace the curia with new ideas, new vigor, a new outlook and a new way of serving people,” he said.
“That's what I would talk to the pope about — serving people.”
And the priest said the new pontiff's greatest challenge will hinge on his ability to bring out that renewed vitality that the church needs to move forward in the 21st century.
“To be relevant, we need to move forward in our evangelization and service of the people,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
These are the popes Marvin Leven and Georganna Oberst have known over the course of their lives. In parentheses are the dates of their papacies according to Catholic Encyclopedia: