The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was filled with a diverse gathering of Catholics from across the area on Sunday as Cardinal Donald Wuerl led a Mass of thanksgiving for Pope Benedict XVI.
“The news that Pope Benedict XVI plans to resign less than a week from today came to all of us as a surprise and in some way a shock,” said Wuerl, who left for Rome immediately after the homily and Mass to take part in the conclave to select Benedict’s successor.
As the Washington archbishop led the Mass, he looked out across the sanctuary where people of many nations sat, kneeled and prayed in many parts of the building. As soon as Mass concluded, the basilica quickly filled again, this time with more than 2,000 recent converts to Catholicism.
It proved to be a good place to ask Catholics — some of the more than 1.2 billion of them worldwide — what they would like to see in Benedict’s successor.
“Look around you, as members of the global community. We Catholics are the world,” said Marine Col. Edward Mays, who was at the basilica to teach a “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” class.
Mays, who is African American, echoed the sentiments of many Catholics about the selection of a new pope.
“The church is the center of my life. It is the faith that I believe in, and it is the faith that stood for more than 2,000 years,” Mays said. “So the selection of a new pope is important to more than a billion people on the planet and, when you look at it, anything that affects a billion people has to be important to the entire world.”
As Mays looked across the room, he said the diverse crowd reminded him of what he has experienced around the world. “Wherever I go as a Catholic, I feel at home. Even if the Mass is in another language, I still understand what is going on.”
Some think that the new pope should come from Africa or Latin America — rather than Europe — because those are the parts of the world where the faith is growing fastest. But race and ethnicity weren’t always the first things mentioned.
Gustavo Gonzalez Martinez, 17, who was at the basilica with his mother, wants the next pope to be younger. “I hope that we can have a pope who will have a lot of energy so that he can be more interactive with young people,” Martinez said.
Milagro Martinez, 37, a native of El Salvador, concurred. The new pope should be “a little younger,” so that he could make real reforms in the church, Martinez said. Benedict, who is German, was 78 when he was elected in 2005. He was 85 when he announced his resignation last month.
Angela Odingas, 22, a Nigerian immigrant, had nationality in mind when she answered the first time. “I just hope that the next pope comes from Nigeria,” Odingas said, perhaps thinking of Cardinal Francis Arinze, who has been mentioned as a candidate.
Then Odingas modified her request. “We just want God to choose the right person for us.”
The Rev. William Norvel said that if the next pope is a person of color, it will make a powerful statement. “There would be a tremendous sense of pride and identity in the church,” said Norvel, the first black leader of the Josephites, an order committed to serving African Americans. “Perhaps we black Catholics could play a more significant role in the leadership of the church.”
On the other hand, Norvel said age was also important. “I am hopeful that we would get a younger pope so that we will be able to deal with the problems of our modern day,” Norvel said. “We are losing a great deal of people because the church is not involved with their everyday problems.”
Bernadette Semple, 46, a retired Navy commander who lives in Southeast Washington, said race should not determine who becomes pope. “A lot of people treat the Catholic Church like it’s a political organization, but it’s not,” said Semple, who is African American. “These are people who are very true to their faith.”
Robert Makori, a Gaithersburg resident and native of Kenya, agreed. “It really doesn’t matter where the pope is from because he is first the bishop of Rome,” Makori said, “and he has a lot of work to do.”
He added, “I pray that the next pope will have the heart and the commitment to do what he needs to do.”
Benedict’s last day was Thursday, clearing the way for the College of Cardinals to begin the process of selecting his successor. The conclave is shrouded in secrecy. Not until white smoke rises above the Sistine Chapel will the world know that a pope has been chosen. Benedict’s successor will be the 266th pope.
Lloyd and Susan Creger are members of St. Jerome Parish in Hyattsville. They say that choosing a pope is not something humans can do alone.
“The pope gets his inspiration from God. It is not like they are voting for the president,” Susan Creger said. “It is totally a religious thing. The cardinals get their inspiration from God.”
Mays expressed a similar view. “The election of a pope is not about race or creed. It is all about electing someone to lead the church, and that election is guided by the Holy Spirit.”