I can think of few, if any, individuals, who over the past quarter-century have commanded as much worldwide attention as our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.
Now his recent hospital stay makes us all deeply mindful of his health and well-being. I am made aware of this every day. No matter where I go people are anxious to talk about Pope John Paul II. They ask, “Do you think he’ll be OK? Can a pope resign his position? Do you think that Pope John Paul will resign?”
Most of all, people of every description and from many faith traditions or none express their concern for him and mention that they pray for him in this hour of trial. I take that interest to be an expression of the great respect in which they hold this impressive successor to Peter. The common note that I detect in their comments is an appreciation for his courage and steadfastness in speaking for those who have no voice — the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable of our world. People appreciate the fact that, no matter where his extensive travels have taken him, he has spoken strongly about the dignity of the human person, and has challenged all of us to honor that dignity in our public policy and private conduct.
Often enough these conversations move beyond our present pope’s health and remarkable record to the papacy in general. Other questions attach to this dimension of the discussion. “What happens when a pope dies? Who chooses the next pope, and by what process? Who will be our next pope? Do you think that he might come from somewhere other than Europe? Is there any chance that someone from the United States might be chosen?” Such questions, as I understand them, are expressive of interest and curiosity about the present uncertain situation. But they also indicate awareness that the Chair of Peter is a deeply powerful symbol in our faith tradition, that it speaks strongly to the unity in faith and charity to which the Lord continually calls us.
With you, I have been praying for our Holy Father these days. My memory often goes back to October of last year, the last time I saw him. I was saddened by the heavy toll that years of illness have taken on his once strong and athletic body. But I was also dismayed by the struggle he has in translating into words the thoughts of his still very sharp mind. To witness anyone enduring such a struggle is difficult. It is especially poignant to see it in one who for years has dealt effectively with many complex issues in several languages.
The answers to some of the questions cited above are straightforward. There is provision for the resignation of a pope in the prevailing norms of the church. I do not think that our Holy Father will take that step primarily because he wants to give everything that he has, including the witness of his suffering, in service of the church.
Upon the death of a pope, the College of Cardinals is convened in Rome. Following a carefully spelled-out procedure, they elect a successor. As I write these words, I remember the remarkably exciting days in 1978 when this process occurred twice, resulting in the election of Pope John Paul and Pope John Paul II.
It is most certainly possible that our next pope could be from someplace in the world other than Europe. I do not think that we will have a pope from the United States so long as we are the world’s only super power. Political considerations seem to me to make that an unrealistic possibility. My guess or intuition is that, while a person other than a European will be elected to the papacy sooner than later, the next pope will be Italian.
The larger question and more difficult question is what will happen in the future.
For 25 years we have experienced the leadership of a richly gifted and deeply committed individual in the Chair of Peter. Whoever may be Pope John Paul’s successor, we know that he will bring to his ministry a life experience, a set of skills, priorities, dispositions and talents different from those of his predecessor. That means that there will be change, the nature of which we cannot anticipate with any certainty.
All that we can do about that now is to continue our prayer for our pope, and commit the choice and style of the future leadership of our beloved church to the providential care of God.
Times of transition such as this can leave us unsettled and worried. Uncertainty in our lives often does that to us. For that reason, times of transition can become wonderful times of prayer. They invite us to remember that we and our leaders come and go, but that the Holy Spirit is always here to console, strengthen and lead us.
Peace to all.