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Local Catholics celebrate new pope

NATCHEZ — Ruth McWilliams cried when Pope Francis was presented to the world for the first time Wednesday.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Regina Mardis and Anne Giadrosich watch the television broadcast of Pope Francis’ announcement in the Rev. David O’Connor’s office Wednesday.
Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Regina Mardis and Anne Giadrosich watch the television broadcast of Pope Francis’ announcement in the Rev. David O’Connor’s office Wednesday.

The Program Coordinator at St. Mary Basilica, McWilliams was watching live coverage when the new pope — the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — stepped out onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, paused for a moment and asked for the prayers of the people before blessing the crowd.

“When I saw that, I had tears in my eyes,” McWilliams said.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike watched Wednesday as the election of a new Roman pontiff was announced with the traditional white smoke signal in Rome, but while the faithful waited for the announcement life had to continue.

Edna Rose Bellan was in Walmart when she heard the news, and she said her first response was to greet other Catholics there and talk about the election.

“I was going to people, saying, ‘We have a pope, we have a pope,’” Bellan said.

Later, Bellan went home, watched television for an hour to find out more and took notes to learn what she could about the man who had taken the name of Pope Francis I.

What Bellan — and the world —  found out is that Bergoglio, 76, is the first non-European to take the reins of the world’s largest church in 1,200 years. He’s also a member of the Society of Jesus — better known as the Jesuits — another papal first.

“I was just thrilled to death that we have a Jesuit pope, because the Jesuits are knowledgeable, they are very-well-trained — they are the scholars of the priesthood,” Bellan said.

Known for living a simple life even after becoming a bishop, Bergoglio — the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina — has been an outspoken advocate for the poor.

That advocacy spoke of the new pope’s servant leadership and humility to Doug Schexnayder.

“He washed the feet of AIDS victims,” he said. “He refused a limo and took the bus instead.”

Schexnayder said he is also impressed with the pope’s track record of defending doctrinal orthodoxy.

Parishioner Mary Gunning, she said she was hopeful the new pope could steer the Church back to better days.

“Gallop recently did a poll that said only 21 percent of Catholics regularly attended church,” Gunning said. “I hope he will do something to get us back on track.”

Pope Francis I is replacing Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned after eight years last month, citing health concerns.