A fresh breeze picked up the flags held aloft by the pilgrims from across the world: the red and white banners of Poland, the stars and stripes of the United States, the astral sphere of Brazil, the tricolor of France, the red and yellow bands of Spain, all were to be expected. But here was the saffron, white and green banner of India, there the Southern Cross of Samoa. The Lebanese cedar flew, even the crescent and star of Pakistan. Still the air grew colder, the clouds denser, until finally the coffin of John Paul II was carried inside the basilica. Then, a brief moment of sun. Only a couple of hours later, when all the ceremonies were over, did the rains begin.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached his homily, reciting the story of Karol Wojtyla's life and spiritual journey, he looked out not only at the crowd, but at the window where John Paul II had so often greeted the faithful. "None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life"--not two weeks before--"the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi," said Ratzinger, alluding to the papal benediction "to the city and the world." "We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father." And through the whole expanse of the square, and down the streets of the Vatican and of Rome, the multitude erupted in applause.
The day before the funeral, as many, if not all, of the cardinals must have been, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York was thinking about what sort of man they might choose to succeed John Paul II. When he stood near the pontiff's body lying in state, "I had the opportunity to say a prayer or two for him--although my prayers are mostly for us," Egan told reporters afterward.
Only God knows who will be chosen to lead the 1.1 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church at the conclave set to begin April 18, but Cardinal Egan's prayers for the present and the future are understandable. The first new pope of the third millennium will have to guide an entrenched and ancient institution through a modern world moving ever faster. Global terrorism makes the problems of Eastern-bloc communism feel as dated as black-and-white television, and the emergence of Islam as a force, both in its fundamentalist and moderate forms, will require a pontiff with considerable theological and diplomatic sophistication. Advances in science and medicine--particularly stem-cell research, reproductive technology and end-of-life care--make old conversations about the birth-control pill feel almost quaint, and a dire shortage of priests has left more than 55,000 parishes worldwide without a pastor. A quarter-century ago, in a passage of his will revealed last week, John Paul II wrote, "The times in which we live are indescribably difficult and troubled... as much for the Faithful, as much for the Pastors." Things have not gotten easier.
As the cardinals deliberate in Rome, the voices of the fractious faithful are growing louder. Priests in Latin America, where Catholics are fast losing ground to evangelical churches, say they want a new pope to address the problem of vocations. In Western Europe, bishops hope John Paul's successor will focus on re-evangelizing Catholics who have fallen away. In the United States, many Catholics pray that a new pope will speak to the dangers of secularization. Already, the voting cardinals are beginning to make their priorities known in homilies and veiled statements to the press. Before he boarded a plane to Rome last week, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Brazilian frequently mentioned as papabile (a possible candidate for pope), said, as television cameras rolled: "Scientists have made great advances during the papacy of Joo Paul II... The church has some ethical principles inherited from the Gospel. It cannot change the origins of faith. But the understanding of this faith can evolve."
Yes, the faith can evolve, but how? And in which direction? On the one hand the church is and has been for the past 2,000 years a solid pillar in a rapidly changing world, a comfort to millions. But now, all over the world, defenders of orthodoxy and promoters of progress are fighting each other for the soul of the church. The most strident calls for change will never come to pass. Yet each pontiff can and does put his own imprint, his own particular interpretation, on God's word, and on a few matters--sex within marriage, the priest shortage, Islam--a new pope might be able to start a new conversation or restart an old one. When the cardinals convene next week, they'll be looking for someone who, as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta puts it, is "a man of extraordinary faith and spiritual vision." Many are also hoping their new leader will give local bishops more leeway to interpret doctrine themselves--and to help build, from the bottom up, a more modern church. That demand, for what Catholics call "collegiality," is one of the most contentious issues of all.
Love in the Time of AIDS
The church calls contraception 'evil,' yet disease is killing the innocent.
As a counselor at the women's resource Center at Boston College, Jennifer Tighman-Havens can see firsthand just how few young Catholics obey the church's laws on premarital sex and birth control. Tighman-Havens, who at 31 is a lifelong Catholic, regrets this, because although she calls herself progressive, she thinks the church teachings have merit: "People should have respect for one another if they're going to have sexual relations--but students' ears are not open because they see it as so distant from their reality."
Since Paul VI established in his 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae" that contraception is "intrinsically evil," the church has not budged. It sees contraception as part of a much larger, theologically sophisticated defense of the preciousness and holiness of human life. Catholic prelates say further that the Vatican does not adjust its views according to popular opinion. Church pronouncements on these issues are based on revealed truths from God, not by taking polls, Archbishop Gregory says.
Nevertheless, in the West, those polls show an almost universal disregard for the church's teachings on birth control and premarital sex. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. churchgoing Catholics said last week that the next pope should allow Catholics to use birth control, according to a Gallup poll. In Rome, where 80 percent of the population calls itself Catholic, 70 percent of the population approves of premarital sex, according to one study, and in Ireland, where Catholicism is part of the national identity, nearly 80,000 couples live together outside of marriage.
A new pope will face a new problem, however, one that pushes the birth-control debate past the usual rhetoric. In the developing world, once reliably orthodox, the disconnect between church teaching and practice has started to widen, as Latin American countries embrace modern social mores. The municipal government of Buenos Aires recently legalized gay marriage, for example; socially conservative Chile joined the rest of Latin America in approving a divorce law last year. Argentina could soon join Uruguay and Cuba as pro-choice countries on the abortion issue.
Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, the scourge of AIDS puts the question of condoms in a new light. The church recommends abstinence as protection against disease, but Jyoti Kumar, a 29-year-old Catholic woman who works as a housekeeper in New Delhi, hopes that the new pope will come from the developing world and will modify the church's strict ban on condom use and birth control. "We have such a huge, growing population of very poor people," she says. "And now there is this frightening problem of HIV-AIDS. Not taking protection against these would be foolish." In Johannesburg, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale says in cases of couples where the husband or wife is infected with HIV, some priests under his jurisdiction believe that condom use is a matter for the priest and the couple to resolve in private, and he rails against Rome for not giving more guidance. "The church has come out with documents about homosexuality," he says, "meaning that it is seen as a problem that needs clarification and moral leadership... I don't see why something as big as AIDS has not had attention. Is it because AIDS is an African problem but is not one in Europe?... I feel there is lack of clarity, and that the Holy Father and the Holy See must come up with direction."
The church is highly unlikely to tackle condoms and AIDS head-on, but it may, in the near future, look at the problem within the larger context of modern medicine and bioethics, says Thomas Noble, a professor of history at Notre Dame. "We're simply in a different place than we've ever been before," he says. In 1968, "cloning was out of the question, in vitro fertilization was out of the question, AIDS hadn't happened yet. Contraception was the issue, and the church said, 'OK, we'll deal with that'." Embryonic-stem-cell research and the morass of end-of-life issues raised by the Terry Schiavo case also fall into this category.
The Vatican does not want clergy to marry, but how will it attract new priests?
Vocations are growing in the developing world, but in the West, the priest shortage has reached epic proportions. Since 1965, the number of priests in the United States has declined to 43,000 from 59,000, leaving more than 3,000 parishes without any priest at all. Now, even in countries such as Honduras, long a Catholic stronghold, only 449 priests care for 5.95 million Catholics--or one pastor for every 13,250 parishioners. According to the Latin American Conference of Bishops, during the 1990s, between 8,000 and 10,000 people deserted Roman Catholicism on a daily basis and joined the Pentecostal Church, other Protestant denominations and evangelical sects.
In the United States, the 2002 sexual-abuse scandals gave the clergy and the faithful an opportunity to do some soul searching, and progressive activists renewed their call for the ordination of women and married men. Ordination of women has many supporters, but it is probably a nonstarter. In a 1994 apostolic letter, John Paul II closed the door on it completely: "I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."
The question of married priests is another matter. Some bishops are supportive of the idea. Two years ago more than 160 Milwaukee-area priests sent a letter to the nation's bishops asking that they consider an initiative that would open the priesthood to married men. And as recently as six months ago, a group of bishops from eastern Indonesia called on the Vatican to bring up the issue of married priests. Especially in Papua, "cultural conditions make it very difficult to get traditional, celibate Roman Catholic priests," says Father Franz Magnis Suseno, of Jakarta, meaning that for men in that region, celibacy is an unimaginable choice.
Catholic priests used to be married. Celibacy was the preferred state for priests starting around the fourth century, but "it wasn't until the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, that the church finally came down and said 'Celibacy is the rule. Period'," explains Noble, of Notre Dame. The Eastern-rite churches allow their clergy to be married, of course; in the United States, the Catholic Church has even allowed a tiny handful of married priests--mostly Anglicans who converted to Catholicism--into its ranks. Kate Caballero, a 62-year-old Tampa, Fla., mother of 10, thinks the priesthood "really is a calling that you have to devote your life to," adding, "and I personally don't think there's room for the other things in it. [But] they'll probably have to [allow married priests] if the church is going to go on, and of course it has to go on." Meanwhile, in the United States at least, women are running the show. They occupy 82 percent of the full- and part-time jobs in the nation's parishes, often in powerful, decision-making roles; their boosters say a new pope needs to figure out how to recognize these women, or risk losing the lifeblood of the church.
In Latin America and, to some extent, in the States, conservative Catholics are replenishing their ranks with priests from seminaries like Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ. The latter group, which sees itself as a sort of evangelizing Marine Corps for the pope, says the number of its priests and seminarians worldwide has tripled since 1980 to 3,000. "We're the model for success and recruitment," says Jay Dunlap, the spokesman for the group. "We're an example of what gets young men excited about the priestly vocation--a full embrace of the church's teachings and a real love of the Holy Father."
The Challenge of Islam
John Paul II was the first to reach out, but the next pope may have to go further.
John Paul II has often been praised for his embrace of Judaism, but he also reached out to Muslims. He opposed the Iraq war and traveled widely in the Islamic world, where he showed special concern for Catholic minorities. He went to Nigeria, where there are bitter and violent divisions, and to Sudan, where there was full-blown civil war. In Muslim Central Asia, he even traveled to Azerbaijan. "The actual number of Catholics there was 121," says Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome. "It would have been easier and cheaper to bring them to Rome and put them up in a fine hotel for a month."
John Paul II made interfaith dialogue a priority, but his successor needs to expand and intensify those exchanges, says Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. "He went much further with the Jewish people than with Muslims," she says. "And much further with Abrahamic dialogue than either Buddhists or Hindus." Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches remain strained, a painful reality for adherents who share so much culture and history. Achieving true interreligious understanding won't be easy, either, especially since the publication five years ago of "Dominus Jesus," Cardinal Ratzinger's document proclaiming the Roman Catholic Church "the one, true church of Jesus Christ." Written to assuage church members' unease over the pluralism so popular in secular culture, it also puts any new pope in a tough spot, diplomatically.
The Vatican is keen to avoid a generalized confrontation between Islam and the Christian West; nevertheless, the next pope is going to have to address the challenge of Islam not only in what has been considered Muslim territory, but in the heart of Europe, where Muslim immigrants and their descendants now make up a new social and religious force that the church has never had to confront before. And he's going to have to find the people who can make a difference in what are often complex communities with no very clear or credible leadership. "It's no good to say 'Let's be good to one another,' and that's all," says Lacunza-Balda. "The time for that is past."
The next pope won't take radical steps. But he may give bishops more autonomy.
Much of John Paul II's immense appeal came from his hands-on style, his drive to connect with others, his ability to reach all the disparate corners of his church--to speak their languages, kiss their children. He was a big-picture guy, says Father Richard John Neuhaus, an American conservative and editor in chief of the journal First Things. "His whole attention was focused on the church and the world." His greatest weakness, bishops say privately, was that he left the day-to-day operations of the church to the Curia, and the Curia sometimes handled matters indelicately at best. This had an alienating effect.
Earlier this year Indonesian bishops were reprimanded for experimenting with the mass. Instead of situating the priest at an altar in front of the congregation, everyone, including the priest, sat in a circle, where they sang and prayed together. The Vatican made them stop. "We were a bit sorry and disappointed that we could not continue our previous experiment that seemed so very good to the people," says Father Alex Wijoyo, executive secretary for the commission of social communication at the Bishops' Conference of Indonesia. Rome's handling of the U.S. sex scandal--a slap on the wrist and a Vatican post for Cardinal Bernard Law--is frequently cited as an example of how the church does not listen to its priests or its people. The voices calling for "collegiality" want the next pope to do better.
At the heart of this bureaucratic debate is a much larger and long-running tension--between reform on the one hand and orthodoxy on the other, and this is the biggest challenge the next pope will face. No one thinks the church will revise its positions on core issues like abortion, homosexuality or the death penalty. But some bishops are crying out for more autonomy, and they want a more robust conversation. The conservative voices within the church are calling for steadfastness and unity.
"The centrifugal forces are so, so powerful that it becomes, I expect, ever more important for the Catholic Church to remain catholic, which is universal," says Neuhaus. "The center has to hold, and the center is Rome." Over the past week the world's Catholics have prayed and mourned for their Holy Father with one voice. As the servant to all these servants, the next Bishop of Rome, whoever he is, will have to find enough room in his heart to embrace all factions, and somehow align those conflicting desires with the wishes of God.