As the conclave to elect a new pope began Tuesday, so did the calls for unity and modernization of the Roman Catholic Church.
Predictably, those sentiments were met with mixed reaction across the globe, amid concerns the church has become threatened by secularism, and credibility has been eroded by the scandal of clerical sex abuse as well as a Vatican bureaucracy stippled with corruption.
The 115 cardinals who gathered in the Sistine Chapel have a ritual to fulfill, but also a historic decision to make.
Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy has been fraught with tense discussions about what kind of pope was needed. His resignation, the first instance in modern times when a pope has stepped down from the throne of Peter, signaled either his own realization or, more likely, pressure from church insiders that Benedict XVI was not the person to guide the church through these challenging, tumultuous times.
More frustrated Catholics say they would like to see a pope who can help restore the church’s integrity, first and foremost by holding the church accountable for its recent crimes, some of which were committed around Vermont. They say they want someone who can speak with intelligence and compassion about the world we live in, and they call for someone who realizes that most Catholics want to reconcile the church’s teachings with the modern world — not wall the church off from it and pretend as though it doesn’t exist. In the fast-paced world that has become dependent on technology and globalization, the church’s teachings seem to generate more concerns than resolution.
Anyone can understand and respect the reasoning behind catechism; but no Catholic — no matter how devout — really wants to be chastised for asking questions or seeking modern-day answers to traditional teachings when they no longer overlay well.
Tuesday signaled that perhaps the flock was being heard, at least by some of the cardinals at the Vatican.
In a Mass led by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who gave the last major public statement by a Vatican prelate before the church’s next supreme pontiff emerges, he said, “St. Paul teaches that each of us must work to build up the unity of the church... All of us are therefore called to cooperate with the pastors, in particular with the successor of Peter, to obtain that unity of the holy church.”
He spoke of the church’s charitable and evangelizing mission and prayed for the future pope to continue to promote peace and justice around the world. The cardinal has long been one of the most influential figures in the Vatican and the ultimate insider, serving both John Paul II and Benedict as secretary of state.
For some Catholics, that call for unity is too strident.
According to The New York Times, Christopher M. Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, N.J., suggested that Sodano might have been issuing a “plea for gentleness” to the cardinals who may be looking for a pope to shake up the bureaucracy of the Vatican. “It’s pretty clear there’s going to be a night of the long knives,” he said.
That could be true. It has been widely reported the cardinals are more concerned that they are divided over whether the next pope should be an outsider who would reform the Italian-dominated Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy; an internal choice who could bring change from within; or a galvanizing leader who could shore up the church in the face of growing secularism and inroads by Protestant evangelicals. Benedict’s decision to resign was not universally welcomed in their hard-line ranks.
There is much to consider.
According to religious scholars, unlike previous conclaves, where powerful figures loomed large, this conclave seems wide open, with a scattered field of “papabili,” or pope-ables. Candidates will build up blocks of votes over succeeding rounds. On the first day, predictably, no pope was selected.
As the voting continues over the next days or weeks, we can only hope that the cardinals are thinking beyond the walls of the conclave to the Catholics around the globe who seek a broader message for the church’s next chapter of healing and progress.
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