Metro Atlantans celebrated with cheers, tears and applause as the Roman Catholic Church named a new pontiff — the first from South America — in Rome on Wednesday.
Bishop Luis R. Zarama of the Archdiocese of Atlanta even joked that since the new pope is from Argentina, that he could now speak Spanish. Actually, many parishes offer Masses in Spanish, since Hispanics constitute nearly half of the Catholic population of the archdiocese.
Zarama and several dozen staffers gathered at the archdiocese’s offices in Smyrna to wait for the identity of the new head of the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics.
The election of Jorge Bergoglio, who selected the name Pope Francis, occurred in time for Easter, a holy period for all Christians.
“It is a beautiful moment in the history of the church,” said Zarama, a U.S. citizen who was born in Colombia.
Zarama said the new pope seemed to be a very simple and humble man. He said it was “clear from the way he approached the people and asked them to bless him and pray for him.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, in Rome to comment for ABC News, described the new pope.
“He is so dedicated to the service of the poor, to living simply, to calling people to holiness,” said Gregory, who became teary-eyed as he later added on the air, “Praise God.”
Brother Nicholas Wolfla, a member of the Franciscan Order, said he had been “hoping for a pastor this time, and I think we’ve got one. He’s got the credentials, but he is also known to be a simple man and we need both.”
What impressed him most about Pope Francis, he said, was his obvious humility. He said he was glad to see someone from a different part of the world and a different mindset.
Pope Benedict XVI resigned last month. He became the first pope to step down in six centuries, leading to the election of Pope Francis.
Jack Erminio, 9, is in fourth grade at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School in Kennesaw, where students had an exciting day awaiting the election of a new pope.
“I think it’s cool that they chose on the second day. It could have taken years,” he said. He also realized the historical significance of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI overlapping. “It’s a once-in-a lifetime thing.”
Earlier Wednesday, Stephen Lenahan, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, watched live streaming on the Internet for the white smoke in Rome that would signal a new pope.
The first thing Lenahan did was to say a silent prayer thanking God a new pope had been elected.
Lenahan, director of youth ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King, and other members of the church then rushed into the pastor’s office, where they jumped up and down in celebration, then began the wait to learn the name, he said.
Chuck Thibaudeau, head of human resources for the archdiocese, called Wednesday an exciting time for the world. “His is not a name that was very familiar to me, but certainly in the next few weeks and months, we’re going to learn a lot about him”
Thibaudeau, and other metro Catholics, said they hoped the new pope would continue to address issues of the sex abuse scandal and work to help the poor and suffering.
Many expected the new pope to be named before Easter. Mountain Butorac, a member of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Douglasville, arranges Catholic pilgrimages and was in Rome during the conclave.
Early Wednesday, he and his group of 33, all from other states, arrived to a very wet St. Peter’s Square. “It’s messy and it’s cold, but it’s not really dampening our spirit,” he said.
The new pope will find himself in a delicate balancing act, adhering to traditions on which the faith is based yet moving them forward to address critical issues such as transparency, trust, the role of women in the church and better handling of the sex abuse scandal.
A recent Pew study found that for many Catholics — 34 percent — the sex abuse scandal and pedophilia remains the most critical issue facing the church today.
Other areas of concern included low credibility and trust (9 percent), being out of touch or not modern enough and losing members (both 7 percent), according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The church’s greatest attribute was its commitment to charitable efforts to help the poor, homeless and sick.
The findings don’t surprise Phillip M. Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
Few doubt that the church needs reform. “There’s a need for somebody who can make the whole structure work better. We need someone who is deeply spiritual and a great communicator but also someone who can clean up the messes within the Vatican,” Thompson said.
While he doesn’t think women will be allowed to become priests “anytime soon,” it could pave the way for a greater role for women, perhaps as deacons or as part of an advisory council on women’s issues.
“You can’t always predict what a pope will do,” he said. “They’re all different, and they all go in some different directions.”
Staff writer Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.