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Admiration for John Paul II, Apprehension About His Successor

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page A11

Paul Selig is a letter carrier who attended a Catholic high school in Seattle before drifting away from the church. Reflecting on John Paul II's papacy, he said the other day, "My grandmother, who is 80, is going to be bummed, but his views were something I couldn't really relate to."

Many American Catholics felt ambivalent about the late pontiff, who died Saturday after a 26-year reign. They loved him for his pastoral energy, his sense of adventure and the twinkle in his eye, even as large numbers wished he had been more tolerant of their own understandings about life, love and how a church should operate.

A woman prays during a Mass for Pope John Paul II in Triangle, Va. In several recent polls, U.S. Catholics have said that the church must change. (Dylan Moore -- The Potomac News Via AP)

That juxtaposition is guiding the views of U.S. Catholics as they consider what to expect from John Paul II's successor, soon to be chosen by a conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. In one poll, 87 percent of American Catholics said they had a favorable impression of John Paul II. Yet 57 percent said the next pope should moderate the Vatican's policies "to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of Catholics today."

Only 41 percent of respondents in last month's Washington Post-ABC News poll said the new pontiff should maintain the approach of his predecessor, who was famous for his moral certitude and his allegiance to traditional interpretations of church doctrine and liturgy. A 2003 Post-ABC poll found that 62 percent considered the church "out of touch" with American Catholics' views.

"What most American Catholics would want is a pope who would look at the United States and see us as helpful partners in the mission of the church in the world, rather than a people that has gone astray," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils in Chicago. He said many worshipers also want greater transparency and accountability in church governance.

The Rev. John Langan, a professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University, believes the new pontiff could gain support among the country's 67 million Catholics if he were more welcoming to the American church's diversity. Although John Paul II's steadfastness inspired many in the flock, Langan said, "Lots and lots of lay people have learned to turn a deaf ear" to the clergy on such issues as sexual morality, including contraception, abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

The dissonance, Langan said, is reflected in a U.S. priesthood that is shrinking even as the U.S. Catholic population is at a record high. As of last year, there were 3,157 parishes without a resident priest, according to Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

"The biggest single problem confronting the incoming pope is trying to resolve the personnel problem," Langan said. "The conservative way of handling this is not solving the problem, at least in North America and Western Europe, so something has to be done."

Still, a significant segment of American Catholics admired John Paul II for his rigor, and dearly hope his successor will stay the course.

"If you're going to join a club, you have to follow the rules. He made people want to follow the rules," said Patty Soltero, clutching a Starbucks cup outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. "I'm worried about the liberal direction our church may take."

At the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Community in Alexandria, Elsi Campos said she wants another pope like John Paul II. Fingering a white plastic rosary, the Salvadoran immigrant said the next pontiff should "continue like John Paul was doing -- encourage the young people and keep an eye on the people who really need it, like the poor people. They need to have a strong father."

Few expect the Vatican to diverge significantly from John Paul II's path on the cultural and social issues that have most divided American Catholics and left many feeling alienated. All but three of the 117 cardinals eligible to cast ballots were appointed during his term.

"The odds of having a pope who's going to change those things are very small," said Nancy Dallavalle, a religion professor at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution. "The question is whether we're going to have any kind of helpful dialogue, which has been impossible under this pope. A different style will have to come from the top."

It is not only the laity that grew impatient with John Paul II's tendency to centralize decision making within the Vatican's thick walls, said Lawrence S. Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame.

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