Many people all over the world seem amazingly shocked (and some truly saddened) to hear that Pope Benedict XVI will resign from the papacy on February 28, 2013. As the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics, Benedict clearly felt that he could no longer do the job effectively because of his advanced age (85) and health problems (it was later revealed that he has a pacemaker). It is fitting that even in the modern (increasingly secular) world that a pope’s resignation can cause such a stir among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This tells us something about the influence of his office, even if many people do not recognize him as having any authority in their lives.
Why is this moment so important to Catholics (and seemingly to everyone else in the world too)? The answer is that the Catholic Church now finds itself at a Robert Frost moment, with two roads diverging in the woods. Does its leadership (the Sacred College of Cardinals) have the wisdom and fortitude to go down a different path, or will political and regional considerations shove the Cardinals once again down the all too trodden thoroughfare as many expect?
Right now the Church is at a monumental time and place in history. There is a convergence of history, technology, and tradition occurring as it never has before. Most modern day Catholics are people of the real world and, although we still look to our religious leaders for guidance, there is the starkly salient truth that the world has changed and our Church has not. There must be an understanding that the new pope needs to deal with reality and face difficult questions with a keen, modern sensibility, not one that is drenched in the malaise of past centuries.
That is why I note that old white popes can’t jump. I state it somewhat with tongue in cheek, but please look at Benedict XVI, and there will be no debate. The poor man can hardly walk. There is great humility in his decision to resign, and one has to give him enormous credit. He could have just sat there as a figurehead, withering away but clinging onto leadership. Benedict’s decision is actually a great leap of faith, and in that there is a metaphorical “jump” for which we all must be thankful.
By resigning Benedict has said that major change is needed. He may not come out and say this – perhaps he cannot do it – but the point has been made. Now we know that the next pope has to be able to jump, to do cartwheels, to run the mile without breaking a sweat, to pole vault over all the minutiae to start bringing the Church into the 21st century.
You may ask: “Why should any pope expend all that effort? Is he not the ‘prince’ of the church?” Yes, but you can bet that the poor carpenter from Nazareth never imagined Peter (or any of his successors) sitting on a gilded throne. Jesus came into the world to serve, not to be served. His humble origins notwithstanding, Jesus embraced all those whom the rest of the world seems to shun: prostitutes, the ill, the hungry, the lame, the blind, and even the Romans and tax collectors. Jesus welcomed those people that everyone else ignored or turned away. So when I say that the new pope must metaphorically jump, just think how Jesus ultimately jumped for us all – he died on the cross.
If we took a basketball court and lowered the nets by two feet, Pope Benedict could still not slam-dunk one. The problem is that the world is never going to make sinking baskets any easier; in fact, if anything the height of the pole will only increase as the world’s problems magnify. Since the task is getting more difficult, we need a pope to come along who can do a layup. We need one who can hit a three-pointer when the game is on the line.
Have you ever seen Mr. Barack Obama play basketball? He’s not only the President of the United States, but he has some serious on the court skills. We need a pope to step up and be like that, and the College of Cardinals must select a vibrant and much younger person. Seriously, the time for frail old men is over.
We also need a pope who represents the majority of Catholic people, and this time he should come from where most Catholic people live. A glance at the world map to view Catholic population (circa 2000) reveals a startling truth: 54% of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America and Africa (and surely that number has grown in 13 years). The old standard bastion of Europe, (the traditional source for elected pontiffs) represents only 27% of the world’s Catholic population (and that number must be smaller now).
Change is needed now. Just as we should eliminate the sadly antiquated Electoral College in the election of American presidents, that College of Cardinals should also be subsumed by a new kind of voting system: the people! If we allowed every registered Catholic in the world to vote for who will fill the void in the papacy, think of the wonderful interest and investment that would foster. There could even be a campaign, with candidates giving speeches. I for one would love to hear potential popes telling of their ideology and opinions on things that matter most. And just think how a country like Brazil (with its 33 million Catholics) could be the tipping point in an election (the papal candidates would no doubt make many campaign trips there to woo voters).
One of the first things the new pope must do is deal with abusive priests. There should be no statute of limitations for the Church; it should aggressively and proactively handle these grave matters with clarity and openness. The time for sweeping things under the rug has long passed (tell that to the diocese in LA), and the new pope must be the leader to firmly put his foot down and say “No more!”
Catholics need a pope who will look at the world as it is and not as he thinks it should be. The pope must be open to all constituencies that come under his auspices, even if some of them do not practice what he preaches. He has to find a way to elucidate to the masses why the Catholic Church is their church, not his church. The new pope must understand gays, lesbians, illegal immigrants, the uneducated, the poor, the illiterate, the infirmed, and the destitute, and the pope must ensure that the Church must do everything to be their Church.
There is also the matter of women and their role in the Church. The new pope must blaze new trails to empower them, even contemplating their ability to become priests, and he must consider changing the mandate of celibacy for all religious. The new pope should be an advocate for women’s rights in all countries, realizing how much Jesus loved and valued the women in his life.
So, does the new pope have to be a minority? Not necessarily, but just as Mr. Obama’s election (twice) has shown the world that Americans will elect a black man to be President, Catholics need the world to see that the pope doesn’t have to come from Italy, Poland, or Germany. The Cardinals must be willing to relinquish tradition in order to gain authority and respect again. If they elect a pope from a Third World country, they are not only saying that this man should be their leader but that the people in this part of the world matter to them as Catholics and as human beings.
Now, I am not saying that the pope actually needs to step on a basketball court and shoot hoops, but it wouldn’t hurt if he knew how to do something more connected to the real world. The next pope needs to have his fingertips on the pulse of the people, and not just those in Europe because he will be the leader of one billion Catholics worldwide. He has to be able to be a good defender, but offense is important too. The new pope has to know when to try to make the shot and when to pass to his teammates. Above all he not only has to jump, but he has to be humble enough to ask, “How high?”
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