While Catholic churches in the northeastern U.S. are closing due to shrinking congregations, the number of Catholics in Georgia is rapidly expanding.
The Catholic Church has a new pope, Pope Francis the First. That is the name chosen by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, the first pope ever from the Americas.
The 76-year-old was elected Tuesday by his fellow cardinals on the fifth ballot, during the second day of the conclave to choose a successor to Pope Benedict. He had reportedly finished second in the conclave eight years ago that named Benedict as pope.
The new pope will find the Catholic Church in Georgia has been growing at a rapid pace since 2000. That’s led to many changes.
In 2000, 3 percent of Georgians identified themselves as Catholics. That’s now up to 12 percent. As of 2012, the number of Catholics in Georgia has grown to nearly 1-point-2 million.
Phillip Thompson with Emory University’s Aquinas Center of Theology, says that’s nearly triple the number of Catholics in the state 12 years ago.
“You know it took off somewhat in the ‘80s and ‘90s but it’s just absolutely exploded here in the last 10 to 12 years.”he says.
Bishop Luis Zarama, with the Atlanta Archdiocese says they have seen a big increase in the number of Hispanic, Asian and African immigrants.
“How we can respond to their own languages and serving the people in their own languages in their own culture. That is one of the big challenges we have right now.” he says.
Zarama says they are also seeing more Catholics moving to Georgia from the northeast and the Midwest.
Phillip Thompson says the church is becoming more vibrant , but that can also cause strain.
“Because you have the group that’s always done it this way, used to having particular church services and church programs in a particular way. And all of a sudden you have new interests, new demands.”he says.
Bishop Gregory Hartmayer with the Savannah diocese says those Catholics new to Georgia are reinvigorating the church.
“And they come with a great spirit, a great spirit of newness and renewal. And that’s been very refreshing as a priest and as a Bishop.”he says.
While the largest immigrant populations in Georgia's Catholic church are Hispanics and Africans, Hartmayer says the number of Asian Catholics in the state is also growing.
“We are about to organize a community just outside of Augusta for the Vietnamese community. The Korean community already has a priest and a community in the Augusta area. We have in the Savannah deanery a church where only Vietnamese is spoken.” he says.
Hartmayer says they are adding bilingual priests to serve the immigrants, and expanding churches across the state.
Georgia is divided into two regions. The Atlanta Archdiocese covers 69 counties in northern Georgia. The Savannah Diocese covers 90 counties in southern Georgia.