Contemplating the next pope
The common reaction seemed to be surprise when Pope Benedict XVI announced February 11 that he was stepping down because he felt he could no longer fulfill the demands expected of the Bishop of Rome. He will be the first pope in 598 years to retire come February 28.
For many, if not most, Evangelicals this might be where the matter ends. We are not Roman Catholic; whoever is pope has little impact on us, some might think.
I think we should care. Here are five reasons why.
1. As the leader of the world's largest religion (and largest Christian church) of 1.2 billion people, the pope is the most visible Christian in the world. From his pulpit, he can address an audience that no other Christian evangelist can. We should pray that whoever succeeds Benedict will be a good and godly man.
Even as there is much speculation that Cardinals may look to the Global South for the next pope, it is certainly the case that he will face two very different challenges: the growth of secularism in Europe and North America and the quickly growing Christian communities of the Southern hemisphere. Evangelicals therefore have much invested how the next pope will address both questions.
2. Increasingly, Roman Catholics and Protestants here at home are allies in the common cause of the gospel of life. As traditional Christian faith—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—is pushed to the margins of our culture, we are finding that which binds us—a common fidelity to the one Lord—is much greater than that which divides. Without diluting the significance of those divisions, how will traditional Christians work together in the many places—from clinics to "kill lists"—where the gospel of life seems to have such little traction? The next pope will necessarily speak to this question and do so from a position that is absolutely unique.
3. The scandal of clergy abuse continues to be felt in waves—first Canada, then the U.S., and now Ireland and Europe. While it is certainly true that the rates of abuse are no different both from other professions and ministers and priests in other denominations, that is no excuse for the way in which the Catholic Church chose to handle these cases for many decades. Thankfully processes have been undertaken to address these matters. Will the new pope continue Benedict's call for transparency and thorough care for the sake of the gospel? All Christians must hope for the sake of the gospel that the answer will be yes.
4. In other countries, Catholics and Evangelicals are more often than not rivals in evangelistic and social action. In Latin America, for example, a Catholic culture that appears moribund in so many ways faces a far more significant challenge not from secularism, but from Pentecostalism. What will the next pope have to say to both communities of faith? Again, he will say something that only he can say and yet his answer is one in which we evangelicals will have a great deal of interest.
5. Similarly, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity both find themselves on the edge of the global Christian "tectonic plate" that grates against that equally expansive religious way of life, Islam. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has become a Christian winter that does not distinguish between Baptists, Catholics and Copts. What will the pope say both to Christians who now suffer and to their persecutors? In parts of Africa, the peace between the religions is often uneasy and spills over into deplorable violence on both sides. How will next pope challenge both Christians and Muslims to live in peace with each other?
Though the election of the next pope may not interest Evangelicals immediately, though the process of his election may seem to be arcane and irrelevant, he will occupy a place on the world stage where a strong Christian voice is needed—both to encourage believers and bear witness to Christ to all people. Over the next weeks, I will be praying that the Holy Spirit will lead the cardinals to vote for a man who will proclaim the gospel, who will live the gospel, and who will inspire all of us to do the same. I hope you will, too.
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