When Pope Benedict XVI announced he would be resigning the papacy, effective Feb. 28, he stunned not only the more than one billion members of the Roman Catholic Church but also close watchers of the Vatican in St. Louis. Benedict made the sudden and astonishing announcement following a meeting with top cardinals in Rome on Feb. 11.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” Benedict, 85, said. “In the last few months … I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.”
According to canon law, a conclave of cardinals under the age of 80 will gather in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican to elect the 266th Vicar of Christ. The Holy See announced the conclave could start as early as March 15. The current pope will have no vote.
As has been tradition, the vote is closed to the public, and the participating cardinals are sworn to secrecy. Following their votes, the ballots are burned; should black smoke rise from the chapel chimney, the public is alerted that no successor has been chosen. White smoke announces a new leader of the world’s largest church.
Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in Nazi Germany, is the first leader of the Catholic Church to willingly leave the papacy since Celestine V in 1294. The last pope to resign his position was Gregory XII in 1415.
Given the gravity and unusual and historical nature of Benedict’s decision, Catholics around the world have been left wondering what’s next for their church. Among the most prominent American voices is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.
“We call him ‘Il Papa,’ our spiritual dad, and we’re sad that he’s going, and we know we are going to miss him very much,” Dolan said. “It’s an act of extraordinary humility. Here you have a man who’s aware of the gifts that God has given him, the high office to which the Lord has called him, but is also aware of his own limitations, as we all have to be.”
Dolan served as auxiliary bishop of St. Louis from 2001-02. He is on some pontiff-watchers’ lists as a possibility, if not a long shot, to be named the first American pope.
More likely, however, is that the cardinals will select a new leader from one of the growing areas of the Catholic Church — Latin America or Africa. Speculation is ripe that Brazil will produce the next pontiff.
“With more cardinals from the developing world, those cardinals are going to get more interest,” said Geoffrey Miller, an assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University. “But with the odd timing of the conclave vote, the leading candidates may be put to the forefront much earlier [resulting in a surprising vote].”
SLU history professor Daniel Schlafly echoed Miller’s thoughts.
“Up until the late Middle Ages you had popes from different countries, but as the papacy became centered in Italy, you had a tradition of only electing Italians, since about the 15th or 16th century,” Schlafy said. “All the popes were Italian until John Paul II.”
“The future of the Church is going to be in Africa and Latin America. I think there would be prejudice in electing an American pope … with the image that the Vatican is in cahoots with Washington, D.C.,” Schlafly continued. “But who knows? I think it’s going to be more a questions of a person’s capability and interest. I don’t think it will be necessarily a question of ‘we’re going to pick one from this nation or that nation.’”
While the conversation about who will succeed Benedict continues, almost all experts, including high-profile scholars from Boston College and Saint Joseph’s University, are in agreement on one issue: there are huge challenges facing the Catholic Church that Benedict either did not address or was unable to address. Among those are the Church’s at-times contentious relationship with the Islamic and Jewish faiths, the finances of the Vatican and the on-going child abuse scandal in the United States and elsewhere.
There is also sentiment from some within the Church that the next pope should express a more liberal interpretation of canon law. Especially in the U.S., the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging members, according to the most recent Pew poll in 2012, as the population becomes more socially liberal, leaving it disenfranchised with the Church’s positions on certain issues.
Benedict, unlike his predecessor, was more lawyer than neighbor and often lacked the charisma that endeared Catholics to John Paul II.
That, according to Fr. James Martin, S.J., a commentator and author, may be a major factor in the cardinals’ upcoming election.
“The pope has to be first of all someone who can effectively preach the Gospel; second, someone able to do so in a stunning variety of cultures, and a person who can, at the same time, run an international operation that cares for one billion persons,” Martin told CNN. “Essentially, the cardinals are looking for someone who can combine the spiritual with the practical: in a word, a combination of St. Peter and Steve Jobs.”
On Wed., Feb. 13, Benedict made his first public appearance in Rome, and, addressing his flock, had a simple request: to pray for the Church.
“Keep praying for me, for the church and for the future pope,” he said.