By Shannon Jenkins
When a local Catholic woman saw the plume of white smoke rise from the Sistine Chapel, she thought, "It's a new day."
Meg Atkinson, the parish secretary at Saint James Catholic Church in McDonough, watched on Tuesday as the 265th pope was named. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, now the former dean of the College of Cardinals, was elected the new pope and chose the name Benedict XVI.
Atkinson said it was an exciting time as she and other parishioners crowded around a small television in the church's reception area to watch as the new pope was announced.
"There's a little bit of sadness on one hand, but moving on with a new leader is also an exciting time," the Hampton woman said. "We're moving on in our faith. We have a new shepherd in town."
The youth minister at Saint James was a little surprised that Ratzinger was selected on the second day of voting.
"When it was so quick, I figured it was Ratzinger," Dwight Baker said. "It shows the unity of the church that the cardinals came to a quick decision."
Atkinson said she wasn't so surprised. "I think it's a logical choice as the successor of John Paul II," she said.
Since 1981, Ratzinger served as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the late pontiff and reportedly gave a "stirring" homily at his funeral.
The newly named Benedict XVI is 78, only a few years younger than John Paul II, who died at the age of 84 on April 2. His age doesn't bother Baker and Atkinson.
"I don't think it will be a big issue," Baker said. "This is more of a transitional period. He carries a lot of wisdom."
"Whatever gifts this man has to share with the world for however long was meant to be," Atkinson said. "All you have is today. Whether he's in there a year or 10, it's part of God's plan. It's not for us to question."
Father Gregory Hartmayer, from Saint Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro, said the new pope's age is an "indication that this papacy will be somewhat shorter" than his predecessor's.
"I think the schedule of the pope is rather demanding," Hartmayer said. "John Paul II changed the image of the papacy in terms of communicating and traveling. We hope (Benedict XVI) would have the good health to meet the demands of a given day and the communication and travel we are so used to with (John Paul II)."
Hartmayer said he is looking forward to hearing more about Benedict XVI and seeing what kind of pope he will be.
Neal Hightower, 58, a Stockbridge resident who is in the process of confirming as a Catholic, said the pope will have to deal with the moral challenges the church faces, as well as its status as a worldwide business entity.
"He's got to have a certain balance a business acumen and he's called to be a great theologian," said Hightower, who hopes to confirm sometime in the fall.
Cardinal Ratzinger's spirit, Hightower said, helped him to overcome some of the challenges he faced in the process of confirmation.
"His spirit itself represented to me what it was like to be the pope," Hightower said. "Somehow it expanded inside of me what his job was ... so that I had a greater level of compassion."
"The most important aspect of the church is the spiritual aspect, and to me, that (is what) he represents what the pope is really all about," he said.
Hartmayer and Atkinson said they believe the pope will continue John Paul's legacy of peace.
"Unity is always on the plate of the pope," Hartmayer said.
Benedict, the first German pope in centuries, faces several issues, including the need for dialogue with Islam, priest sex-abuse scandals and a shortage of priests and nuns in the West.
Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis and The Associated Press contributed to this article.