Catholics consider next pope’s mission

Opinions differ over church’s direction.
Friday, April 8, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:47 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

As they await the election of a new pope, Columbia Catholics are sifting through their memories of John Paul II while contemplating the future of the church.

A host of issues will face the next pope — the celibacy of priests, women in the clergy, birth control, stem-cell research and others. Such potentially divisive issues have dominated the media coverage since John Paul’s death April 2.

For Catholics such as Ann Forbis, 87, such discussions have little impact on her core beliefs.

“I’ve been a Catholic all my life, and I’ve gone along with the teachings all my life,” says Forbis. “I believe what the pope says and I follow him.”

Americans constitute just 6 percent of the Catholic Church’s worldwide membership, and more global challenges face the papacy, said Mark Smith, associate pastor at the Newman Center. Continuing John Paul’s ecumenical efforts to unify Christian churches, which have been divided for centuries, is the most important issue facing the next pope, Smith said.

Hugh Macken, a 30-year-old salesman and self-described “evangelical Catholic,” agrees.

“Our biggest focus needs to be Christian unity,” he said, “trying to understand one another and really reaching out to one another with honesty and compassion.”

Reaching out to children and young adults — another facet of John Paul’s papacy — should be a priority to the next pope as well, said Kristen Watkins, an MU junior. In 1984, John Paul hosted the first World Youth Day in Rome. The festival, which drew 300,000 people, was designed to encourage young Catholics as a response to declining church attendance among children and young adults. World Youth Day 1995, held in Manila, Philippines, brought 4,000,000 faithful together. The 11th World Youth Day will be held in August in Cologne, Germany.

“The future of the church lies in the youth,” Watkins said. “So it’s important to have a pope that reaches out to the youth.”

Much of the speculation on who will assume leadership of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide has been on selecting a successor to John Paul from Africa or Latin America, where as many as 400 million of the faithful live. Smith says he would support a pope from a Third World country. However, that may not result in the kind of doctrinal changes that some Catholics would like to see, especially regarding the use of contraceptives.

“The Third World church is much more conservative than we are,” Smith said. “The pope cannot be from the Third World and be lax on doctrine.”

While Smith wants the next pope to confront countries that persecute Christianity, Macken would like to see the Catholic Church improve its image in the world and overcome misunderstanding about its doctrines.

“I think Catholics have to do a much better job of explaining to the world what our faith actually teaches about women, about social issues like contraception, the doctrine of the Eucharist, about faith for salvation,” says Macken.

Macken supports the church’s opposition to legalized abortion and the death penalty. He is also critical of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and expects the next pope to echo John Paul’s condemnation of the war.

“The idea of pre-emptive war to me is disturbing,” says Macken. “I would hope that the next pope would continue to reiterate the Christian teaching as it pertains to war: that war should be avoided at all costs.”

An old Roman proverb states “Always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope,” suggesting that a pope with a different leadership style or home country is healthy for the church. Though John Paul was renowned for his globetrotting and charisma, he was also criticized for neglecting the internal workings of the church, Smith said.

Smith thinks a less-photogenic pope, who concentrated more on the structure and order of the church, would be good.

Macken said selecting a pope with a different style than John Paul’s would benefit the Catholic Church.

“I think one of the things that make the Catholic Church so vibrant is the diversity within it,” he said. “To have a pope with a different perspective on things shines light on the aspects of our church that need to be highlighted at this time.”

With conclave — the assembly of cardinals who will choose the next pope — scheduled to begin April 18, speculation on John Paul’s successor will likely continue to make news. For now, though, parishioners at the Newman Center are keeping their hopes and concerns for John Paul’s successor to themselves, Smith said.

“The vast majority of my parishioners have been much more interested in grieving,” he said.

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