As the 115 Cardinal electors vote in the seclusion of the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pontiff, the unbridled speculation about Pope Benedict XVI's successor will only escalate. The guessing game is an amusing but irrelevant ritual, for as the ancient Roman dictum goes, "He who enters the conclave a pope, leaves a cardinal."
History, for the most part, gives truth to that maxim. Few guessed that in 1958, the genial but elderly diplomat Angelo Cardinal Roncalli would emerge as Pope John XXIII or that twenty years later the humble and obscure patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani, would be elected John Paul I.
A more fruitful pursuit is identifying the pastoral experience and virtues required of the next pope if the Church is to triumph over the formidable forces that threaten its relevance in the 21st Century.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has been miraculously resilient. Throughout its turbulent two thousand year existence, it has survived official inquisitions that tortured and brutally executed suspected heretics; crusades that butchered countless innocent people; rogue popes who led lives of unspeakable debauchery; and antipopes whose ambition rivaled that of the fallen angels.
But that wasn't all. The Church weathered strains of blatant anti-Semitism, the systematic prohibition of books, the condemnation of scientists like Galileo who challenged erroneous Church teachings about the universe, and scandalous practices like the selling of indulgences that ultimately provoked the rupture of Christendom.
The Church's remarkable resilience is no guarantee, however, that it can survive the clashing forces that besiege it today. Thus, the need for a new pope whose personal life is unassailable, whose humility is palpable, whose wisdom is Solomon-like, whose gentleness is endearing, whose benevolence is inspiring, and whose devotion to the Word supersedes his loyalty to the flawed human policies guiding the Church when the two should collide.
We were once blessed with such a pope. Albino Luciani, the first Pope John Paul, captivated the world in his brief thirty-three day pontificate in 1978 because of his transparent holiness, his hopeful smile, his abiding meekness, and his unfaltering devotion to Christ.
In the early sixties while the Church hierarchy wrestled with the issue of artificial contraception, Luciani publicly expressed his dream that some reasonable accommodation could be reached to ease the suffering he witnessed in families where children became the victims of crippling poverty. When Louis Brown, the world's controversial first "test tube" baby was born, Cardinal Luciani, alone among the princes of the Church, publicly congratulated the parents.
In a flash, Pope John Paul I abandoned the vestiges of a bygone time that the Church, a fierce guardian of its traditions, clung to desperately. He unceremoniously discarded the royal "we" habitually used by popes, insisting instead on the informal first person singular "I." He initially abandoned the pope's portable throne and refused to be crowned. His simple homilies enchanted all but a few anachronistic prelates entombed alive in the fossilized Vatican bureaucracy.
A brilliant teacher capable of making the most profound issues comprehensible to the most unsophisticated among us, Luciani's rendition of the Good News appealed even to lapsed Catholics, many of whom became willing to take another look at the teachings of the Church they had formerly disowned.
Today, the modern Church itself has contributed mightily to its sullied reputation.
Nobody but clerics were responsible for the monstrous sex crimes perpetrated against innocents, and nobody but their bishops were culpable for the indefensible folly of covering-up these abominable sins thereby endangering more young people. The belated and often feeble apologies from Church leaders combined with the arrogance of complicit cardinals undermined the faith of practicing Catholics in the conduct of their Church. Yet the Vatican hierarchy, ostensibly operating within an impenetrable bubble, never seemed to understand the toxic implications.
Beyond that, millions of practicing Catholics reject the Church's prohibition of birth control, particularly in cases where unwanted children are either aborted or abandoned to disease or starvation. Millions more denounce the marginalization of women, including nuns, within the mission of the Church. Still others decry the lack of transparency in Vatican finances and its unfathomable obsession with secrecy. Many question the relevance of priestly celibacy, especially with the precipitous decline in priestly vocations. Of concern also is the rapidly dwindling numbers of practicing Catholics in Europe and the United States.
Only an extraordinary pastor blessed with the virtues of John Paul I and guided by the unerring hand of God can successfully steer the bark of St. Peter safely through these stormy times. The only remaining questions are: Is there such a man among the today's college of cardinals, and, if so, will they have the wisdom to elect him?