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The Next Pope: Global Star or Local Bishop?

By Richard P. McBrien
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B05

The next pope will assume the mitre of a man whose face was familiar to the masses, and he will follow in footsteps that crossed the globe. But of all the lofty titles that he will inherit -- Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Chief of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of Vatican City State and Servant of the Servants of God -- the one that sounds least impressive is the one that reveals the most about the role he must perform.

John Paul II's successor will be, quite simply, Bishop of Rome.

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With that title come responsibilities and opportunities that will define the next pope's leadership more tellingly than media savviness or willingness to travel. His ministry to his local diocese will be the most effective teaching tool at his disposal.

For if, as spiritual leader of the diocese of Rome, he can run the best possible diocese in the church, other dioceses all over the globe can be led to imitate that model. And if, as head in Rome of the entire College of Bishops, he can strengthen the faith of his brother bishops, he will move toward preserving the unity of the whole Church, which has suffered its greatest crisis since the Reformation in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal.

Not every pope has realized the significance of these dual responsibilities. Until the papacy of John XXIII (1958-1963), popes of the modern era paid little attention to their role as bishop of the diocese of Rome. But John's visits to local prisons, hospitals and orphanages were signs of his pastoral care for the diocese that grounds his status as earthly head of the whole Church. That same focus was brought to a new level of intensity by his successor, Paul VI (1963-1978).

But no pope in modern history was more engaged in the life of his local diocese than John Paul II. When he was younger and healthier, he often visited parishes in Rome and its suburbs, presided at Mass, heard confessions, baptized, administered the sacrament of Confirmation, performed weddings, anointed the sick and greeted parishioners just as priests do on a Sunday morning here in the United States and elsewhere around the world.

John Paul taught by example. His successor must do so even more effectively if he is to restore faith in the Church. For, as Paul VI insisted, people listen "more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if [they do] listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses."

This does not mean that the next pope has to be a showman and a jet setter. The gift of modern media is that television can capture the intimacy of compelling teaching and circulate it instantly around the world. Telegenic or not, what the next pope does will probably be disseminated in any case, since the media are ever-present in our electronic age.

The responsibility to strengthen the unity of the church is one reason why there is so much interest in where the next pope will come from. The role of Bishop of Rome suggests that the most straightforward course in choosing a pope would be to follow the ancient tradition of choosing a Roman priest, like Pius XII (1939-58), as well as most of the popes of the First Christian Millennium. However, it is unrealistic today to expect the Church to elect its popes from within the limited reservoir of candidates provided by the Roman clergy alone.

The Church's more practical path is the one that it has followed for most of its history -- that is, making its choice from a range of Italian candidates. From the beginning of the Second Christian Millennium (around the 11th century), when the College of Cardinals was established, the nominee was almost always an Italian cardinal.

But today the focus is naturally broader, looking to Latin America, where most of the world's Catholics live; to Africa, the continent with the fastest-growing Catholic population; and to Asia, where Catholics are in the minority (except in the Philippines) but the region to which so much of the world's political and economic weight has been shifting in recent years.

The cardinals' decision must take into account another fact: that Catholics -- and non-Catholics as well -- under the age of 35 have no meaningful memory of a pope other than John Paul II. Anyone born before Oct. 16, 1978, was not even alive when he was elected. We are talking here about millions upon millions of people around the world, and many millions within the Catholic Church itself.

Older Catholics have always had a basis for comparison and contrast. Those in their eighties will remember Pius XI (1922-1939); many others over 60, Pius XII; still more, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I (who died in 1978 after only 33 days in office). Younger Catholics, on the other hand, have no direct basis whatever for comparing one pope with another.

That may be why most of the criticism of John Paul's pontificate has come from older Catholics who remember John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, which he called to renew and reform the Church, and Paul VI, who showed that a pope could be completely faithful to the Catholic tradition without necessarily taking a hard-line approach to discipline.


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