4. Don’t expect big surprises from the next conclave.
In the new papacy, there will probably be more continuity than radical change. Don’t expect female priests next month. But the Holy Spirit can always surprise us, as it did with the 1958 election of John XXIII, whom the cardinals thought would be a “do nothing” pope; instead, he convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed modern Catholicism. Everyone was also surprised by the 1978 election of John Paul II, the first non-Italian in centuries.
While the cardinals will be loyal to the pope, the new pontiff, once elected, has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, consult and pray before each big decision. Where that will lead him is anyone’s guess.
5. It doesn’t matter who is elected pope; nobody listens to him.
While the pope can no longer command absolute obedience among the faithful, he is still the leader of an organization with more than 1 billion members. What he says and does matters, whether it is regarding the Middle East, AIDS, climate change or many other issues that touch not only Catholics but everyone.
The most important challenge for the pope and the church is to figure out how to preach the Gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people of the 21st century, especially young people, who can be turned off by religion. Benedict got it right when he said Christianity should not be presented as a series of “no’s” but as a “yes” to Jesus and his message of love, life, justice, peace and community. If the new pope does this, he could revitalize the church. He needs to use all the modern means of communication, even Twitter, to get his message across.
In preaching the Gospel, the church needs to imitate, not just quote, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best thinking of their times — for Augustine it was Neoplatonism, for Thomas it was the writings of Aristotle — and used it to explain Christianity.
Read more from Outlook:
The case for picking an American pope
The best choice for pope? A nun.
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