On Feb. 11, Pope Benedict XVI (now pope emeritus) announced to the world that he would be resigning from his office as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, which became effective on Thursday (Feb. 28).
In his resignation, he shocked some and undoubtedly set a new precedent for every pope of the future who is confronted with the dilemma of choosing whether to do what may be best for God’s church by resigning before losing physical and mental strength or to follow eight centuries of almost unshaken tradition.
Even as a young, budding, less-than-qualified theologian, I have been fielding questions about the Holy Father’s resignation as well as what is to come with conclave and the 265th successor to the throne of St. Peter. I have heard every question from every type of person, including a talk radio host suggesting I call in and present a conspiracy theory attached to Benedict’s resignation and friends asking who I think will be the next Supreme Pontiff.
As a 22-year-old Catholic with a truly modest knowledge of the papacy and papal election, I am less than prepared to answer their questions, but a question almost every Catholic can ask and be completely qualified to answer is what they can personally expect from the next pope.
As I have the benefit of a forum for expression, I thought I might share some of my own thoughts about the next pope so that I may possibly inform and enrich the hopes of others while allowing their own concerns and hopes to enrich mine.
My prayers are for a pastoral pope. We live in a tragic world in which it is easy for one to be discouraged and in which many, especially youth, are leaving the Christian religion in droves. This is particularly true for Roman Catholicism, which seems dominated by the politicization of our religion, easily overshadowing the fundamental beauty of our religion which motivates many of us to keep the faith.
In a 2009 Boston College lecture, the theologian Richard Gaillardetz commented on remarks from interviews with Cardinal George of Chicago who said that the movement for hierarchical structural renewal as envisioned at the Second Vatican Council has been overdrawn and needs to be put aside for the sake of bringing the church back to its true mission: spreading the Word of God.
While many, including Gaillardetz, would agree that abandoning aspirations with regard to the best manifestation of the hierarchy is futile to a movement for a more missionary church, Cardinal George is truly onto something in that the church needs to put a focus back on living out and spreading Christ’s Word. This must be done in service to the world.
This means that the next pope needs to focus on what is best for the whole of God’s people, especially the poor. In Catholicism, we are taught that God has a special place in the plight of the poor and all those who suffer.
It is most honorable that many bishops and cardinals have moved away from the palatial lifestyle as princes of the church and towards a lifestyle of humility and poverty. Of course, I do not demand this of the pope, but I pray that he as well as all leaders of the church realize that living God’s Word is not just about living in a one bedroom apartment instead of a palace, but about truly serving the poor by being among them, giving to them, and even fighting for social and fiscal platforms which are most in their favor.
To me, it is essential that the next pope is a pope for the poor.
Part of the call to be a pope for the poor necessarily involves some rethinking of priorities. Instead of focusing all attention on four main issues – women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, and contraception – a focus on a broader range of issues vital to the life of the church and its most impoverished members may be necessary. That is not to say that these four important issues need not be addressed, but it is to say that a greater focus needs to be paid to other pastoral areas which today remain somewhat neglected by the institutional church, most importantly the plight of the poor.
In addition to being a pope for the poor, I hope the next pope will invite interpretation of that which is revealed in the people of God. True, the primary role of the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the church, is to be a protector of the faith, and the Magisterium is the authentic interpreter of revelation.
Still, I pray that instead of a pope who is a traditionalist, or someone who is obsessed with preserving traditions of the past to the point that it alone controls them, the next pope will be a man with a great respect and protective instinct for tradition as well as one who is willing to dialogue with interpretations of revelation in light of what the Holy Spirit may be revealing in the people of God today.
That being said, my hopes are that the next pope will be someone who knows the role of every member of the faithful. I pray that while he will fulfill his mission as the protector of the faith and leader of God’s holy church, he will allow the people of God to be instruments of God’s grace, theologians interpreting the Word for the betterment of the church and the service of the Lord, especially in the poor and suffering.