By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Catholics around the world on Wednesday watched white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope.
Formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio, Pope Francis I is a first for many things, and has Catholics in Northeast Mississippi excited about his papacy.
“The first Pope from the new world, the first to take a Jesuit name, I think he’s going to be a fresh start,” said Michelle Harkins, administrative assistant at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo. “And that’s exactly what our church needs.”
Lynn Weeks, a music minister at St. James, felt good about Francis I’s temperament.
“He’s a very sweet-seeming man, and I think he is appropriate because of the surge of Spanish-speaking Christians in the global church,” she said.
Father Lincoln Dall of St. James agreed, having studied in the pope’s native Argentina.
“Being the first non-European pope, I think choosing him opens the church to the rest of the world and reflects its diversity,” Dall said. “Argentina is also one of the largest arch-dioceses of the Americas, so he’s used to tending a big flock.”
Sister Mary Christine Fellerhoff, pastoral assistant at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Amory, said Francis I has done more than talk the talk.
“He’s very much lived the poor simple life, living sparsely, using public transportation. I’m looking forward to seeing that in his papacy and in the work of the church,” she said.
Though Cardinal Bergolio was not his first choice, Dave Palladino of St. James said he is warming up to the idea.
“He has a background in liberation theology, which originated in Latin America. It’s a theology that really emphasizes caring for the poor, but it is dangerous because it can get too tied up in political action, which is where the church is now,” Palladino said.
“However, Latin American culture is not as materialistic as ours, in which we are so used to getting our way. I hope he will bring a contemplative approach to exploring the questions of faith as opposed to a modernist approach.”
Bishop Joseph Latino of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson issued a statement proclaiming the difficulty of the papacy in the modern world.
“This will be an enormous challenge … in a world that is becoming more and more hostile to Christianity and religion in general … He will have to be a staunch and unyielding defender of the respect for the dignity of the human person in a world where individuals are very often treated as commodities,” he said.
However, he has faith that Pope Francis I will be a beacon of hope for the 1.2 billion Catholics across the globe.
“A new era in our church has begun,” he said. “We as a church will be refreshed as we continue our 2,000-year mission of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ into the whole world.”