What a Latin pope means for the Catholic Church

By Bryan Richardson

The election of a new pope typically brings excitement. Wednesday’s election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina brought more of that excitement than typical to the area’s Latin Catholic population because of what he represents.

Pope Francis is the first pope from the Americas, the first non-European pope since the 8th century and the first Jesuit pope.

The Rev. Joseph Popelka, pastor at Manhattan’s Seven Dolors Catholic Church, said a pope from Latin America is especially exciting for Spanish-speaking Catholics.

Popelka ministers to this population through the parish’s Latino ministry. He considers himself around “80- to 90-percent fluent,” having studied the language since junior high but not having used it heavily until arriving at Seven Dolors.

Popelka said issues in the Americas are different from those of Europe, Asia and Africa. “He’ll be able to speak to a lot of issues here that Europeans might not have understood in the past,” he said.

The election of Pope Francis represents a shift in the historically European-dominated faith. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 39 percent of 1.2 billion Catholics in the world live Latin America, the most of any area.

Europe has gone from being the home of 65 percent of the world’s Catholics in 1910 to 24 percent of the world’s Catholics today.

Seven Dolors has experienced this phenomenon locally since starting up its Latino ministry seven years ago.

Popelka said two nuns from Mexico come here to help with the ministry, whom he visited in Mexico once during the beginnings of the ministry.

Popelka said the parish’s weekly noon mass in Spanish has grown from between 20 and 30 attendees at the outset to between 150 and 250 now. He said it’s important to use the Catholic faith as a connection for the people.

“We try hard to keep it from being a Spanish ministry and an English ministry,” he said. “We want the ministry to be united.”

Popelka said Francis seems to be a “gentleman that speaks his mind.” “I think people are excited and interested to see how a new shepherd will lead us,” he said.

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