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'Habemus Papam!'
Local Catholics react to election of new pontiff
pope sign
A sign welcoming the new pope stands on the grounds of St. Matthew's Catholic Church on John Paul Avenue off of Gentilly Avenue in Statesboro. - photo by EDDIE LEDBETTER/staff

From the first puff of white smoke to the newly-elected Pope Francis’ appearance on the balcony to the announcement that quickly spread around the world, Catholics from every country celebrated with the selection of former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina.
    Dr. James Stephens, GSU professor in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health and member of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, says, “I’m delighted at the Cardinal’s selection of Pope Francis. Everybody I’ve talked to has been delighted.
    “It’s a very historic time in our church. Pope Francis is the first pope from the Americas. He’s the first one outside of Europe. It makes him truly a world pope.
    “Pope Francis is a man of simplicity and morality. I think that’s what we need in the Catholic Church today. God helped them pick the right person.”
    Stephens elaborated on the 76-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aires’ simplistic lifestyle. “He makes his own meals. He gave up his chauffer to take the bus. He lived in a small apartment. I think that impressed the Cardinals.”
    Speaking of the name the former Cardinal chose, “Francis,” Stephens says, “He took the name of a Saint of another congregation. That shows his humility.
    “I think we’ll find out he’s the pope of the people, particularly the poor people.”
    Stephens, who comes from a long line of Catholics in his family, says there have been seven popes in his lifetime. In fact, he once had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II.
    Before his career as a college professor, Stephens ran large medical facilities for 25 years and was CEO for 18 of those years.
    While CEO of a large Catholic medical center in Indiana, Stephens, along with about 600 other CEOs were invited to Phoenix in 1987 to discuss church doctrine on homosexuality and the medical treatment of HIV AIDS patients. Stephens said his wife was also invited, but she graciously relinquished her invitation to one of the nuns at the medical facility.
    “Though we treated them in our center, there was confusion in some of the medical centers. Pope John Paul II addressed the issue, saying, ‘They’re God’s children. We treat them like any other patient.” So, that settled the issue.
    “After he spoke for about 45 minutes, I was able to shake his hand. We spoke for about 20 seconds.” Stephens chuckles about his excitement and nervousness when he adds, “I have no idea what I said or what we talked about.
    “Besides the birth of my three sons and my marriage to Mary Linda, this was the most exciting day of my life.”
    Stephens pointed out a significant difference in the announcement of this new Pope.
    “Tens of thousands of people were waiting in St. Peter’s Square. It’s the first time in a long time the crowd hasn’t been mourning the previous Pope’s death. It was a very excited, joyous crowd.
    “I have to give Pope Benedict XVI credit for saying he needed to resign. He has to be all over the world. And he didn’t feel his health allowed him to fulfill those duties.
    “This is very exciting times for members of the Roman Catholic Church. In my opinion, the Cardinals made the best choice. And we will pray for him.”
    Father Brett Brannen, Priest for 21 years, who recently returned to his hometown of Statesboro to be the Priest of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, says he was very excited when he first heard of the selection.
    “Like everyone else, I began to ask questions about him. And everything I heard or read made me even more confident that the Holy Spirit had spoken powerfully in his selection,” Father Brannen says.
    When asked if he was surprised at the seemingly fast conclave, Brannen replies, “I was not. I told quite a few people that I thought we would have a Pope by Wednesday. I do not know why I thought this, but I was right.”
    “I think Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is an excellent choice. The Catholic Church is growing most quickly in the third world countries, and Latin America is filled with Catholic Christians. I was hoping that our new pope would either be from Africa or Latin America.
    “I think he is a very humble and holy man, but a quite competent leader for the universal Church. I am very happy he was elected.”
    As Priest of St. Matthew’s, Father Brannen serves over 500 English-speaking families, over 1000 Hispanics, and “on paper,” up to 1500 GSU students. “We’re three churches in one, basically.”
    But the message is the same to those “three churches,” just like it is across the globe.
    “The purpose of the Catholic Church is always the same: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world. This is ultimately the job of every Christian, but especially of the Vicar of Christ, the Pope.
    “With 1.2 billion members, the Catholic Church is not an easy thing to administer, so the Holy Father will have many daily decisions to make in the work of this greater purpose.
    “There are many beautiful customs and traditions in Catholicism. There are many problems that must be addressed. But the ultimate concern is to bring every human person into an intimate friendship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.”

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