In the process of retiring one pope and electing another, I’ve had a bunch of media interviews. Members of the secular media, as well as the general public, have been keenly interested in the drama and the circumstances of Benedict’s surprise resignation.
And now the focus has quickly changed to the prospects for the next pope. The two questions I’ve been asked most frequently are: “Who will be the next pope?” and “What will the next pope have to do?”
The first question is easy to answer: I don’t know.
The second question is a lot more complicated, but at least I can offer a personal opinion and some observations.
To begin, the new pope will have to spend a lot of time at home, being more personally involved in the administration of the vast Vatican bureaucracy. He’ll have a lot of work to do to straighten out the confusion, the bad behavior and the intramural squabbling that seems to have taken hold there.
The new pope will also have to be a tireless pilgrim, spending lots of time and energy traveling to the ends of the earth in the service of the “new evangelization,” re-proposing the faith of the Church to friends and foes alike.
The new pope should be a man of authentic holiness and devotion, able to spend long hours in his chapel undistracted, immersed in intense contemplative prayer.
The new pope will have to be comfortable spending every waking hour on the world stage, in the brightest of spotlights, being well-prepared, friendly and engaging in facing enormous crowds at lengthy, draining liturgies and circus-like public audiences.
The new pope, following the stellar example of his predecessor, will have to be a world class theologian, well-schooled in biblical and patristic theology, and classic Thomism, yet able to examine and respond to contemporary theological trends, legitimate and otherwise.
The new pope will have to be a compelling preacher, a charismatic figure who dominates any stage he’s on, an A-list personality that people of the world and the media will fall in love with.
The new pope will have to be conversant with modern technology, comfortable with the social media, yet also able to speak, write and translate Latin, the official language of the Church. And by the way, he should be fluent in at least five or six modern languages – he’ll need them at the weekly audiences.
The new pope will have to be strong and articulate in maintaining and defending the traditional teachings and disciplines of the Church, explaining them to an increasingly secular and skeptical culture. He will also have to be very patient – listening carefully to liberal voices clamoring for radical change, as well as conservative voices condemning all the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years.
The new pope will have to appoint perfect bishops, encourage disheartened priests, placate unhappy nuns, and inspire the faithful to live-out their Christian vocation even when they’re burdened by multiple personal and practical problems.
The new pope will have to exhibit a sincere commitment to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue; trying to find common ground with increasingly liberal Christian denominations devoid of traditional values, and building strong bridges of fraternity and understanding with other world religions, especially Judaism and Islam.
The new pope will have to be a confident head-of-state, meeting with politicians, presidents, potentates and prime ministers from every corner of the world, leaders of diverse nations who come to the Vatican bearing their own specific agendas.
The new pope will have to be at-ease with young people, especially in those high-profile, exhausting World Youth Days he’ll be expected to attend. Nor will it hurt his image if once-in-awhile he stops to bless and kiss the little children raised to the windows of his pope-mobile.
The new pope will have lots of problems to solve – the continuing fallout from the worldwide sex abuse crisis; the declining sacramental practice of Catholics in the Western world; the challenges to traditional moral values, especially human life and traditional marriage; the violent attacks on Christianity in some corners of the world, and the more subtle yet real challenges to religious liberty in others; and urgent issues such as immigration, health-care, poverty, hunger, global warming, and war, to name just a few. All these things will be on the new Pope’s shoulders, and he’ll be deemed a failure if he can’t solve them all!
“Bishop Tobin, that’s an impossible job description,” you say. “No man on earth can meet all those needs, fulfill those expectations and solve all of those problems.”
And you’re absolutely right! The burdens placed on the shoulders of the Roman Pontiff are enormous – beyond anything a human being can be reasonably expected to fulfill.
Pope Benedict realized that immediately. He said that when he was chosen to be pope, he felt like a guillotine had fallen upon him. At that moment he prayed to the Lord: “What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can’t do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me.” (Light of the World, p. 4 )
And that’s why the new pope, whoever it will be, will need our fervent, personal and prayerful support. And that’s why the new pope will need the grace and the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.