Electing a pope
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Posted April 4, 2005 at 10:10 a.m.

John Paul II set high standards for successor

By John L. Allen Jr.

Conclaves almost always produce surprises and change at the top of the Catholic church, in part because cardinals generally strive to address the unfinished business and correct the perceived weaknesses of the pontificate just ended. That means the kind of man who's elected in this centuries-old process is usually different, in ways large and small, from the pope he follows.

The story is not just one of change, however, but also of continuity. This is not merely because the Catholic church has a permanent body of teaching that it believes is never subject to alteration, but also because some popes redefine the papacy in permanent ways. John Paul II was almost certainly one of those epochal popes whose legacy will live on.

What are some aspects of his papacy that the cardinals will almost certainly want to maintain?

  1. Political Actor: John Paul had a staggering impact on his times, and not just because of his role in the collapse of Communism and the reunification of Eastern and Western Europe. At the beginning of his papacy, he helped negotiate a peace treaty between Chile and Argentina that averted a potentially bloody war over the Beagle Islands. Towards the end, he was the world's leading voice of moral opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and although he did not stop the war, he succeeded in helping a large swath of the Muslim world to distinguish between the Bush administration and the Christian West. Whether various political forces agreed with John Paul or not on substance, everyone acknowledged that he was deeply relevant. Cardinals will expect that the next pope will be able to bring the Church's moral teaching to bear on current events in similarly effective ways.
  2. President Bush meets with
    Pope John Paul II.
    Media Figure: While some cardinals believe that John Paul II was perhaps a bit too charismatic, that he personalized the papacy in ways that were arguably excessive, no one disputes that his instinctive genius for modern communications helped the church in enormous ways. In effect, John Paul converted the role of the pope into the church's chief evangelizer; he found creative ways to reach people with the gospel message, whether it was his trips, his books and TV appearances and compact discs, or the way he let the outside world into his private life. That style persisted to his last days and even beyond, when for the first time television images of the pope's body were beamed from his private chapel. While no one expects the next pope to duplicate John Paul's charisma, there is a strong sense among cardinals that his successor should also know how to make himself heard in the modern Aereopagus of the mass media.
  3. Traveler: John Paul logged more flight miles than any pope in history, traveling to 129 countries on 104 trips outside of Italy. Some places he visited repeatedly, such as Poland nine times and the United States seven times. Yet he was also determined to put a spotlight on forgotten corners of the globe; the continent he visited most often was Africa. All this was a dramatic departure from centuries of papal tradition, when the style was that the pope remained in Rome and the world came to him. John Paul once said that it was time for the pope to be not just the successor of Peter, but in some ways of Paul as well, referring to the great missionary and apostle of the early Church. Few expect the next pope to travel quite as much, and some cardinals think the next pope should travel in a different style, spending more time in quiet conversation with local bishops and others, and less time staging mega-events in sports arenas. Whatever the case, John Paul has created such an expectation of papal travel that it would be almost impossible for his successor to be exclusively a stay-at-home figure.
  4. Attention to youth: By now, the special connection John Paul II enjoyed with young people has become a commonplace of media commentary. Not every pope can be expected to have the same personal rapport with the young; magic is by definition difficult to anticipate. On the other hand, the cardinals recognize that if the Catholic church is to have a future, especially in the developed world, it has to find ways to engage and energize its younger members. Hence the cardinals will almost certainly expect that the next pope will continue to make youth ministry a priority. Among other things, this means that the World Youth Days inaugurated under John Paul II, the massive gatherings of Catholic youth every couple of years that some have dubbed a "Catholic Woodstock," are likely to be part of John Paul II's permanent legagcy.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@ncronline.org.

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