Indeed, John XXIII had shown the way not only in the winning style he adopted throughout his own papacy, but in the historic speech he gave at the opening of Vatican II in October of 1962: "The Church has always opposed . . . errors. Frequently, she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations." In other words, teaching through example rather than through pronouncements backed up by the threat of punishments.
There are many challenges facing the next pope, whoever he might be, but among the most important are the continuation of the good work done by John Paul in his advocacy on behalf of the poor and the powerless, in peacemaking and denunciation of violence and oppression, in outreach to other religious traditions, and in forcefully reminding the world of the spiritual basis of our lives on this earth.
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But the next pope will also have to address challenges left on the papal table. He will have to restore and put into practice Vatican II's teaching on collegiality, that is, the collaborative (not subordinate) role of the bishops in church governance. Indeed, many of the cardinal-electors have been restive under the incessant pressures brought to bear by the Roman Curia and will want assurances from the fellow cardinal they elect that he will respect their authority and rein in the bureaucracy.
If he is to succeed in increasing unity, the new pope will face the difficult task of addressing the needs of the alienated, especially in the United States and Europe: women and gays and lesbians, among them, as well as the divorced and remarried, and many more educated Catholics than the Church's leaders are likely to admit. And he must find a way to do so without unnecessarily alienating others.
But perhaps more than any other challenge will be the restoration of the integrity and credibility of the Church's priesthood in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. And this will involve a reevaluation of the process and criteria by which bishops are selected and promoted within the hierarchy. Nothing has been more obvious in these recent years than the dearth of pastorally effective episcopal leadership.
The most important goal is to choose a new Bishop of Rome who can meet these challenges. If he can do that, he will perform a role more important than managing the media or traveling the globe.
Richard McBrien is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of "Lives of the Popes" (HarperCollins).