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April 19, 2005:

We Have a New Pope:
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Becomes Pope Benedict XVI
by Jon M. Sweeney

Days of intense speculation have culminated as 115 cardinals decided today who will serve the Roman Catholic Church as its next pope. The end of the secretive conclave, begun on Monday afternoon local time when the cardinals sequestered themselves in the Vatican’s famous Sistine Chapel, was predicted for sometime this week.

It will not be easy to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, his charisma, physical energy, intellect, leadership, and power of personality. John Paul died at the age of 84 on the evening of April 2 in his private apartment at the Vatican in Rome. Within days, the chants of Santo! Santo! and banners reading Santo Subito! (“Sainthood Now!) were heard and seen from the crowd of two million faithful who came to pay their last respects to John Paul’s body. Also, there are already reports from the faithful of miracles that have come as a result of praying to the deceased pope for intercession. Such attested miracles are necessary for the beatification, and then canonization, of any Catholic saint.

According to the Associated Press, in a survey taken only ten days ago of 500 Catholics in America, two-thirds of respondents said that John Paul should be made a saint.

Catholics believe that the pope is the head of the Church universal, a direct spiritual descendant of St. Peter, the apostle, who they believe to have been the first pope. The elected successor to John Paul is the 265th pope in that line of religious authority. John Paul appointed all but three of the 115 cardinals who chose his successor, fourteen of which are in the Vatican representing North America.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a conservative German theologian, and one of the closest associates of John Paul, was seen by many experts and observers as the frontrunner for the papacy. National Catholic Reporter Rome correspondent John Allen, Jr. was the first American journalist to report Ratzinger’s possible favored status among the assembling cardinals in a column late last week. Then, the Sunday New York Times proclaimed the same in part of its front page headline—“German Seen as Central Figure in Conclave.”

Why Should Non-Catholics Be Concerned Over the Selection of the Next Pope?

Roman Catholicism is the world’s largest religion, with at least 1.1 billion baptized members. Present in St. Peter’s Square on April 9 for the funeral of John Paul II were at least fifteen reigning monarchs, close to 75 heads of government or state - including President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mohammed Khatami - at least fourteen leaders of other world religions, and several leaders of other Christian denominations including The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

World leaders outside the Catholic church paid their respects to John Paul because of the enormous influence he had over world affairs. Not all popes have had the vast influence that John Paul—who is credited with playing a key role in the downfall of Communism, for instance—had. Nevertheless, why are so many non-Catholics watching closely as the cardinals debate who will be the next pope?

There are vital issues facing the future pope. First, will women one day be able to lead as priests in the church? John Paul stood adamantly against even the discussion of this issue. Second, will the “top down” approach to dogma continue, as it has from John Paul’s Vatican for the last twenty-six years? Many theologians have been silenced, discussions abruptly ended, and spiritual leaders removed when they were not quick to recognize or affirm what was sent to them. We saw this sort of intimidation even in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, as Catholic bishops threatened to withhold the sacraments from candidate John Kerry, or anyone else, for that matter, who didn’t agree with official teachings.

But perhaps most importantly, what will be the future of Roman Catholicism’s relations with the rest of Christianity? The message from John Paul’s papacy was mixed on this subject. Through his travels he reached out to the world, meeting personally with more religious leaders than any pope before in history. Through his speeches and writings he often encouraged the dream of restored communion between branches of Christianity, as hinted at in the proceedings of the 1960s Second Vatican Council. In his 1995 document, Ut Unum Sint, he even encouraged Christians of other denominations to help him find ways of improving his papal ministry. But, John Paul did not make an effort to clarify the most essential teaching of Catholicism that separates Catholics from other Christians: True salvation, according to official teaching, remains the province of Catholicism alone. According to Dominus Iesus, a declaration written in 2000, “the one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.” And it was Cardinal Ratzinger who wrote it.

More information about Pope Benedict XVI can be found at The National Catholic Reporter Web site.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is

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