With Pope Benedict unexpectedly stepping down – the first pope to do so in 700 years—the question arises, what next?
One could write a whole article on why the Pope is bowing out, and why now, when the tradition has been to have the papacy as a life-long commitment (a “life term,” you could say). There are all sorts of factors – one Boston-area media expert privately speculated that since Pope Benedict had been there to see Pope John Paul II’s last days of declining health and effectiveness, he didn’t want to leave the papacy in the same way.
But the bigger question is, where to from here? It would seem that the Catholic church could be at a crossroads—a most opportune time to do something different, something really revolutionary. If the church thought this through, they might discover that millions of Catholics worldwide are waiting for the other shoe to drop, many of them with a very hope-filled, forward-looking, anticipatory perspective. The cardinals, bishops, and other leaders could just have the makings of a dramatic rebirth of the Catholic church, if – and that’s a big if – if they play their cards right and go boldly into the future, instead of retreating further into the past.
An American pope?
Maybe one of the biggest signs to the faithful that the times are indeed a-changing would be to choose an American pope. And it doesn’t even necessarily have to be one with a U.S. affiliation. One would think that there must be good candidates from the Latin American countries or Canada to choose from.
In any case, after the recent episodes in which the Vatican came down hard against some progressive American practices, that the act of selecting the next pope from the western hemisphere could do a lot to mend fences internally, and even forestall a breaking-away of U.S. Catholics in protest against unbending, destructive, set-in-concrete traditions that have been causing conflict, disunity, and dwindling church membership in recent years.
Think back to what the election of Barack Obama did for the American presidency. No, it wasn’t perfect. But it certainly gave a big shot in the arm to an institution that was going down the tubes. There is still a fair amount of skepticism and lack of trust in that regard, but at least there are still large numbers of new voters who now feel more “enfranchised” and included in the democratic process than ever before.
The same thing could happen in the Catholic church, with the selection of a new leader who finally connects with the hearts and souls of the disillusioned, disappearing churchgoers who have had it with years of scandals, abuse, political posturing, gender battles, a dwindling priesthood, etc.
To end on a more positive note – imagine what a “born again” Catholic church might look like, if it were truly successful in reinventing itself, top to bottom. The results could be amazingly inspiring and wonderfully life-giving.