Catholic leaders weigh in: ‘If I were pope’


Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful as he leaves St Peter's Square at the end of his final general audience on February 27, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Franco Origlia/GETTY IMAGES)
March 11, 2013

In a conclave week feature, Catholic clergy and laymen answer what they would do if they were pope. Read below for views from the Rev. James Martin, SJ, Lisa M. Hendey, Sister Julie Vieira IHM, the Rev. Dwight Longenecker and Timothy Shriver. Tell us your ideas in the comments below or tweet #ifIwerepope.

James Martin, SJ, is editor at large of America magazine and author, most recently, of “Together on Retreat,” an e-book taking readers through an interactive retreat.

Banish from your mind the idea that I have any chance to ascend to the highest office in the Catholic Church. Nor am I even supposed to want it. The founder of the Jesuit Order, St. Ignatius Loyola, asked Jesuits at the end of their training to make a formal promise not to “strive or ambition” for any high office in the church. (Ignatius didn’t like the clerical climbing he saw in the 1500s.)

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few ideas about what I hope a new pope might do. So I suppose that the first thing I would do after choosing a name (I’d go with my baptismal name, since it’s the one God used to call me into the church) is to stand on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, and tell everyone that they are beloved children of God—rich and poor, young and old, man and woman, gay and straight, married and divorced, believing and agnostic and even atheist. God loves you because God created you. And the ones who feel most marginalized, I would tell the crowd in my poor Italian, are the ones to whom the church must love the most, as Jesus did.

To that end, I’d begin my pontificate by listening to those who have felt that their voices may not be heard. The poor, first of all. The church does an astonishing job in caring for the poor across the globe—it’s one of the finest things we do. But because the poor don’t have access to power, the church always needs to be particularly attentive to their needs. Who else? Sex abuse victims next. We can never stop listening to the stories of victims, and the more the pope hears from them directly—and from their families—the more the church will be to stop clerical abuse and make amends. (By the way, as a starting gesture, and a sign of penance, I would sell off some of the Vatican’s art collection to contribute to a Vatican fund for sexual abuse victims.) Women next. They need to be included in decision-making roles. How could they not be? Jesus called them into his inner circle, and it was to women that the risen Christ first appeared on Easter morning. Gays and lesbians next, certainly the least listened-to group in the church. What are their experiences? The new pope will want to know--and listen. Finally, theologians who have been under a cloud of theological suspicion. What might they say to the new pope? It’s always important to listen to those with whom you disagree, whether you’re a pope or a lowly Jesuit priest like me. I short, I’d start by listening.

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of CatholicMom.com and the author of “A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms.

As an American Catholic woman, I consider it impossible for me to speak to the prompt “If I were pope.” Endeavoring to follow both the letter and the spirit of canon law and its complexities, it is clear to me that no woman will be elected by the conclave of cardinals. Truthfully, I am more interested at looking at those qualities, abilities and virtues I see as critical for our next Holy Father given the challenges faced by today’s church.

But before I speak to those “resume points,” let me speak for a moment to my own role in the Catholic Church. As a laywoman toiling in a full-time apostolate, as a wife, a mother, a daughter, sister and friend born and raised Catholic, I love my church and wake up each day desiring to serve her and those around me. By merit of my baptism, I am “priest, prophet and king,” called to bloom precisely where God planted me. My role is obviously less visible – but perhaps no less critical – to the future of my church than that of my parish priest or our next pope, or the family sitting next to me in the pew at Sunday Mass. Working together in the mission field of the “new evangelization,” we are each called in unique ways to draw others into closer relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now as to that question of our next pope, I believe deeply that the Holy Spirit has his hand firmly on this process. I am praying daily for our Cardinals, that they will be lead to elect a virtuous leader, administratively capable of steering a church in need of continuing reform and committed to using emerging technologies to lead believers forward in the New Evangelization. As Pope Benedict XVI proved to the world, venues such as Twitter are a fertile mission field. I pray that our next pope will build upon his predecessor’s legacy in leading hearts and minds closer to God and to one another.

Sister Julie Vieira, IHM is partner and cofounder of A Nun’s Life Ministry at aNunsLife.org

As we move into a period of discernment and deliberation around the election of a new pope, many of us may wonder what it would be like to be pope! One glimpse of the life of Saint Peter, though, and it’s clear that the petrine office is an awesome, yet challenging responsibility.

Reflecting on what it would be like to be pope today, my first thought is of the sisters in my own congregation and in the many religious communities both here and abroad who have stepped into roles of leadership with a spirit of humility, simplicity, and zeal. These women are not only dynamic administrators but also pastoral leaders. They know how to stand and deliver and how to sit, knee-to-knee, in conversation and in contemplative presence. If I were pope, I would make this model of leadership the cornerstone of how to approach the responsibilities of the papacy. And I would encourage other leaders as well – youth ministers, justice advocates, pastors, parents, politicians, caregivers, etc. – to model this in their own ministries and daily life.

Another emphasis I would lean on from my experience as a Catholic sister is a commitment to the radical call of love, compassion and social justice embodied in Jesus and the Gospel. I would work to see this expressed in how we function as an institution as well as how we incarnate God’s mission throughout the world. I would give particular attention in this regard to young people from across the globe – every culture, race, theological persuasion and profession. I would encourage them to understand that they each have a unique calling from God. I would encourage their desire to be of service to others. I would make sure they always had place at the papal table. And I would keep a window open at the Vatican as a reminder to be open to the ways that the spirit is moving all Catholics, calling and challenging us all to proclaim with our lives the good news of Jesus the Christ.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church i Greenville, South Carolina. He writes at dwightlongenecker.com

On my election as pope, I would take the name Benedict XVII because St Benedict built core communities of faith, hope and love in the midst of a crumbling and decadent culture. I’d encourage Catholics to do the same. I’d also take the name Benedict because St Benedict understood that the Christian life is a battle, and I’d constantly remind Catholics that they should be happy warriors. Benedict would also be my name because he treasured tradition, knowing that history and tradition are the vital roots of the church, and sick roots make for a sick tree.

My papacy would would re-establish the priorities of the Catholic Church. The church does not exist primarily to make the world a better place, but to prepare people to go to a better place. As pope I would not propose a master political plan or an economic solution. The Catholic Church does not offer superficial solutions, but supernatural salvation. We offer the way of Christ the Lord: an abundant adventure that leads to joy in this life and glory in the next. Faithfulness to that Gospel way of life would produce all the reform and renewal that is needed. More than that I could not offer.

Timothy Shriver is chairman & CEO of the Special Olympics

If I were pope, I’d pray for an end of fear.

I’d pray for an end of the fear of the Holy Spirit. “Be not afraid,” Jesus announces. As pope, I’d try to show that the church isn’t afraid of the spirit by changing my “papal audiences” to “pastoral listening gatherings” and having one every week that was exclusively for people under 25. I would welcome them with the question of Jesus, “What are you looking for?” and I would listen and listen and try to understand. And I would change the rules of Eucharist in the catholic church recognizing that not all churches have the same beliefs but welcoming any human person to the table of communion in the hope that the sacred unity promised by the body of Christ will act as an agent of healing and love for all.

I’d pray for an end of the fear of women. I would invite women religious all over the world to come together and issue a series of letters and lessons that carry a woman’s perspective on the gospel and the kingdom of heaven among us titled, “My soul proclaims.” I would promise to give them the altar of St. Peter for the reading of these letters and lessons and promise to attend and do my best to understand. And I would ask all churches the world over to invite women religious to teach the gospel weekly from the altars of the world. And of course, I would chose my moment and with a heart asking for forgiveness, I would ask all women religious who so chose to join me at the altar as representatives of Christ and celebrate the Sacraments as priests of God in equality and solidarity.

I’d pray for an end of the fear of vulnerability. I would make my first retreat at the founding community of L’Arche in France and title it, “Let them come to me” and spend a week caring for those with the most severe mental and physical challenges. I would ask for their prayers and their support in my ministry. I would invite all believers of any kind to recognize in these human beings both the pain of creation and the goodness of the spirit which knows no bounds. I would ask all people of faith and goodness to ease the scourge of fear of difference and vulnerability and usher in an age of acceptance where there are no exceptions to the dignity of the human person. None.

I’d pray for an end of the fear of simplicity. I would ask business leaders around the world to come to teach me about how they can help the world create wealth but also distribute it without greed. I would beg them to model the gifts of generosity and humility. I would challenge them to teach the church a new way to end the grinding outrage of extreme poverty. I would pray with them as friends and I would open every session of our work together by washing their feet.

Finally, I’d pray for an end to the fear of death. I would dispose of the popemobile and ride in a convertible bus which would always have plenty of room for believers to join me. I would take my bus to tour the world and make my first five years dedicated to going only to places where war is active. I would stand my ground with victims of war, even if it meant my life was in danger. I would pray with them the words of Chief Joseph of Nez Perce: “fight no more forever.” I would put the bumper sticker on my bus, “I’m pretty sure that when Jesus said ‘love your enemies,’ he did not mean kill them.”

I would try to be a model of ending the fear of vulnerability by beginning a practice of seeking forgiveness. Every week, I would share a weakness of my own and ask the church join me in asking God to forgive me. Jesus proclaimed “the kingdom of God by the forgiveness of sins.” I would do my best to let go of all my fears and weaknesses and arrogance and model the love of all things which forgiveness makes possible. I would welcome the journey from being lost to being found.

And finally, I would try to end the fear of sexuality. I’d start by moving a king size bed into the papal apartment. After all, my wife and I don’t sleep in a single bed anymore.

If I could do all this, I would tell the everyone that it is the most glorious and joyful thing in the world to be a pope who can listen to children and learn from holy women and care for humble people and work for peace and live without fear of death and forgive in the most reckless and absolute of ways and cherish the love of my wife and my children forever.

One cautionary note: I’m not going to be pope. But there’s nothing on this list(save the ordination of women and the opening of the Eucharistic table) I can’t do myself. For me and for so many others who want and expect something dramatic from a leader like the pope, it might be a good idea to start with myself.

Amen.

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