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What we need in a pope

A variety of noted Catholics describe what they would like in a new pontiff.

March 03, 2013
  • Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down Feb. 28.
Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down Feb. 28. (Jonathan Twingley / For…)

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to willingly step down from his position. What kind of man will the cardinals who have gathered in Rome from around the world choose to be his successor? We asked Catholics from a variety of perspectives to write about some of the qualities they would like to see in a new pope.

Sackcloth and ashes

By Sister Eileen McNerney

The first words that I would like our new pope to say are, "For the next 40 days, I will be wearing sackcloth and ashes in repentance for the sins of our church." The horrendous scandal of sexual abuse has pained me deeply, and I know that I am not alone in how I carry this sadness. I believe that a strong symbolic gesture from our next pope could do much to heal this pain. I want him to lead us in fearlessly facing the challenges of the Catholic Church in this postmodern age, forthrightly exploring issues that might threaten to divide us. And I pray that he will always have before him the words that Jesus used in calling St. Peter, the first pope: "Do not be afraid!" The new pope will need our loyalty and our prayers, and he has mine from the start.

Sister Eileen McNerney is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange County and author of "A Story of Suffering and Hope: Lessons From Latino Youth."

Humility and courage

By Bill Donohue

If the new pope embodies the attributes of humility and courage, he will likely succeed. Humility is important because it allows God to speak to the Holy Father; it also permits the faithful to touch the pope, both spiritually and emotionally. What we don't need is the kind of arrogance and hubris that so many leaders exhibit. Courage is a rare quality in world leaders, but it is indispensable to success. Many people possess wisdom, but when it is not tied to courage, it fails to deliver. Being courageous means being honest; it does not mean conducting an ongoing popularity contest. Even contentious teachings can find a receptive audience when sincerity trumps politics. The content of church teachings is best left to the the pope in communion with the bishops. The laity should expect a respectful hearing. However, when the laity are divided, the voice of practicing Catholics — the ones who actually go to church — should be given preferential treatment. Chasing the malcontents is not only foolish, it risks alienating the core.

Bill Donohue is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.


By Father Gregory Boyle

It was a "homie," a trainee at Homeboy Industries, who told me that the phrase "do not be afraid" appears 365 times in the Bible. That's "once for every day of the year," as he put it. It's my hope that the new pope will embrace that sentiment and swim against the current fear-based tide of the church. Today's leadership has been too terrified to address a range of issues, including the role of women in the church, attitudes toward sexual orientation, the language of the liturgy and basic aspects of healthcare, including contraception.

We need a pope to oversee not simply a modernization of the church but its total transformation. The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini once said, "The church is 200 years behind the times." He may have understated this. The church needs a pope who can call us to conversion and lead us to take seriously what Jesus did. We can't just settle for the low bar of pope as media-savvy, canny Curia manager. We need a pope to usher in a new era of inclusion, the end of a sinful clericalism, and a strong sense of duty to those on society's margins. The 1 billion faithful long for a leader who is fearless and driven, not by terror but by love.

Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is executive director and founder of Homeboy Industries and author of "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion."

Inclusive generosity

By Margaret Susan Thompson

I dream of a pope who listens and appreciates that he still has a lot to learn, who trusts in the primacy of conscience and appreciates that the Holy Spirit empowers the whole body of believers, not just himself. I hope for someone who is collegial and consultative, not just with cardinals and clerics but with people in the pews (female and male) and with those outside the church. I want someone who is generous with the church's and his own time, talent and treasure. The ideal pope would be prayerful, and inclusive in his understanding of the value of all humanity, one whose experience is primarily pastoral rather than administrative. Theologically, he would promote the richness and vitality of Catholic social teaching and advocate for implementing the spirit and substance of Vatican II. And could he be someone who loves — a person of kindness, compassion, humor and joy?

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