With Pope Benedict announcing his retirement, all eyes turn towards his successor.
The position of pope carries with it enormous power, for he is in effect an autocrat ruling over a global spiritual empire that is as heavily bureaucratised as any temporal empire ever was. Some articles talk of the declining power of the papacy, but by doing so fall into the trap of modern writers who look at legacies in terms of years or even decades.
Unlike secular governments or world powers, the Catholic church looks at the long game. The very long game. In his resignation speech (delivered, appropriately for a bookish theological type, in Latin) he referred to himself as the 'Successor to Saint Peter', in case anybody had missed the fact that the institution is nearly into its third millennium.
The new pope can wield significant political influence if he chooses, from the message that his election sends to the billion followers of the papacy to his willingness to make moral pronouncements on the actions of others.
Will Benedict's successor be chosen to send a message to the Church's followers in Africa or Latin America that their time has come? Will a North American be elected to bolster a traditionally strong but increasingly alienated centre of Western Catholicism? Or will the bureaucratic Euro-centrism of the church be reinforced to reassure its followers that the force remains with them? Will the new incumbent be politically active in the manner of John Paul II or quiescent like Benedict? Will the rigours of the job now mean that a younger man will need to be chosen?
For all of its other-worldliness, the College of Cardinals has shown a willingness to pick a person to send particular messages at particular times. A charismatic, outdoor-loving Polish pope to signal to the atheist communist bloc that while political systems are ephemeral, the authority of the church is everlasting. A conservative and uncharismatic German theologian to reinforce the authority of the church in a time when that authority and primacy is an increasingly distant memory in most Western countries.
Certainly the current pope was intellectually thoughtful; he opposed the aggressive secularism in the West that he believed represented a 'culture of death'. But how much more effective his intellectualism was compared to his predecessor's relative populism in making the church relevant in influencing societal or even political behaviour is questionable.
As a Catholic, I am the first to admit that the repugnant clerical abuse and the inadequate response to it has deeply stained the moral authority of the church. But on a personal level I had nothing but good experiences with the nuns and brothers who taught me, and I have met admirable people from religious orders toiling away in remote areas doing charitable work for naught. I am always amazed at the sacrifices that such people of good character make for their faith.
Therein lies the challenge for the church in the West and its followers at the start of the third millenium: can trust be rebuilt in an institution that can attract individuals of high calibre and selflessness of purpose while also being responsible for failing to properly address the criminal behaviour of others?
Photo by Flickr user MarcelGermain.