“Having a pope from Latin America means that I can speak in Spanish now,” said Bishop Luis R. Zarama, drawing laughs from those in attendance at a news conference at the Archdiocese of Atlanta offices in Smyrna.
Zarama had been scheduled to address reporters after white smoke started billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney Wednesday afternoon, but before Argentina native Jorge Bergoglio, taking the name Pope Francis, was introduced as the first pontiff from the Americas. Zarama said he hopes the new pope will help lead new people to the Catholic Church.
He will have his work cut out for him, inheriting the leadership of a church that has been rocked by a barrage of sex scandals in recent years involving Catholic clergy.
Bergoglio is known as a simple man who lives in a small apartment and rides the public bus system to work.
“As a Latino, he will have a warm way to approach the people,” Zarama said. “This pope will give a great opportunity for us to feel close to him.”
Tatiana Villa of Kennesaw, also a native of Colombia, said the selection shows the growing influence of the Latino community.
“It shows we are hard working, and we can lead and bring people to new places,” said Villa, who works in communications at the archdiocese.
Pope Francis will reflect positively on the church, Villa said.
“Really, we know that the world is one now,” she said. “He is just getting the community together and strengthening us as one family of believers.”
Nancy Anderson of Marietta, owner of Pigtails & Crewcuts, moved here from Argentina in 1988.
Reared as a Catholic and now a Methodist, Anderson spoke of what a huge figure the pope was in her culture.
“I actually had an opportunity to go to the streets when John Paul II came to visit Argentina in the late ’70s, so all of this change was really bringing back all of those memories, mostly of my grandmother who worshiped the pope just as much as any saint,” she said.
Anderson believes the new pope will rejuvenate the Catholic faith in Argentina.
“I think it’s going to bring a lot of hope to the people who live there,” she said. “I just got off the phone with my childhood friend, and of course they’re celebrating. It is our hope that the Argentinian pope will go ahead and bring life again to the Catholic faith. Obviously it’s been tainted with all the child abuse issues and so forth, so this is just going to bring life again and bring new hope.”
Pope seen as good choice
The Rev. Thomas Reilly, pastor of Catholic Church of St. Ann in east Cobb, said Bergoglio led Argentina’s Catholics through a difficult time.
“He’s a great choice,” Reilly said. “He represents a part of the world that is very Catholic. As a pastor, he is very concerned with the poor and reaching out to the poor.”
The choice of Bergoglio made Amy Daniels of Kennesaw, director of the archdiocese office of formation and discipleship, proud to be Catholic. She was one of dozens at the office to cheer while watching Pope Francis speak.
“I have such a good sense,” she said. “To me, it seems unique the way he engages the people and seemed so unscripted. It was a beautiful connection with the people of the world.”
Zarama was filling in for Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton D. Gregory, who was in Rome contributing to ABC News’ national coverage of the papal conclave. At times, Gregory would appear on two large screens on either side of Zarama while he spoke during the news conference in Smyrna.
On the broadcast, Gregory admitted to tearing up during the new pope’s remarks.
“I think at that moment he won the heart of all of the Romans, if not all of the world,” Gregory said. “He’s truly a holy man.”
Zarama said Gregory’s television appearances have brought positive exposure to the church in Atlanta.
“He’s a national figure,” Zarama said. “That raises the bar for us here in Atlanta in living our faith. That’s a good challenge for us.”
– Jon Gillooly contributed to this story