In the News 2013

Catholics wait, watch as papal selection nears

The world might be turning to Rome for word on the selection of a new pope. But Roman Catholics, Protestants and activists of all many faith traditions in Brevard County are focused on the future leadership of the influential worldwide religious body.

Among those looking ahead are lay Catholics such as Enrico Iacobi II, who spent a recent morning with hands folded in prayer during mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Melbourne.

The 51-year-old Melbourne resident, a lifelong Catholic, believes the church and its hierarchy must not stray from tradition and should resist social pressure on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, birth control and celibacy for priests.

“Whatever happens, we should stay firm in tradition, tradition with a capital ‘T,’” he said.

The 115 cardinal-electors — including the bishop who may be named as the successor to Pope Benedict XVI — arrived in Rome this past week for a series of meetings. On Friday, they set Tuesday to begin the selection of a new pope.

There will be 11 U.S. cardinals — high-ranking bishops — participating in the papal selection process, with most from Catholic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest. None is from Florida. Most are from Europe.

At stake will be the immediate guidance of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and a church beset by internal scandal at the Vatican and dogged by lingering allegations of child sex abuse and questions over banking matters. Despite the storms, the papacy is usually a bastion of traditional, conservative leadership, with eyes set on long-term issues.

“A lot of times the public looks at the process in political terms, but it’s not a political election, you won’t see anybody with campaign signs,” said Mark Kniepmann, youth minister for Ascension Catholic Church in Melbourne.

Kniepmann said he believes the next pope will be younger than his predecessor and hopefully, “someone who’s a strong evangelist for the church. A lot will depend on the person who’s selected and what sort of passion he has for the youth.”

During mass, hundreds of schoolchildren from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, listened as Father Douglas Bailey explained the process of picking a new pope, likening it to that of a football team. “The owner picks a coach, the owner picks the team and every football team has a playbook … the Bible is our playbook,” he said to a sanctuary packed with students and other morning worshipers.

Demographically, that “team” is seeing dramatic population shifts. In Europe, with 284 million adherents and long the home of Catholicism, has seen growth slow dramatically over the years, with just a 1.5 percent increase in numbers since 2005, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The largest numbers of Catholics can be found in South America and Central America, where a combined 656 million people are members of the church. Another 185 million Catholics reside in Africa compared to 84.6 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Many observers say that could lead the conclave to select a pope from areas where the church’s numbers are growing, such as Africa, Latin America or Asia. One of the often-mentioned papal candidates is Bishop Peter Turkson of Ghana, an African.

Erica Pedone, who attended mass at Our Lady of Lourdes with her two children, Michael and Allie Rose, said she is not concerned about the race or nationality of the new pope as much as she is about where he would potentially take the church during the course of the next generation.

“I don’t know that it makes a difference about where he comes from, or his ethnicity,” said Pedone, who has black, Native American and white ancestry.

“A lot of people are just wondering if there are going to be any changes in direction, but I don’t think they’ll be any big changes,” said Pedone, who volunteers at the school. “I believe the Holy Spirit will lead us. Everybody’s been praying for the conclave.”

Still, for others, selecting a non-European pope with a conservative religious outlook, would reflect Catholicism’s increasing diversity.

“You go to any parish and you’ll see the diversity of the church,” said Bailey, who oversees mass for Florida Institute of Technology students at the All Faiths Center in Melbourne. “I would like to see someone like Pope John Paul II. I thought that when they picked John Paul, it was about human rights in Poland, the same could happen here.”

It’s not just Catholics watching. Protestants are also eyeing the conclave, with some evangelists hoping for an ideological partner on issues including abortion and same-sex marriage. Others express desire to see the Catholic church revisit issues such as the ordination of women.

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church and the first woman ordained chief pastor for that 2.4-million-member denomination, sees opportunity for the next Catholic pope.

“We hope for leaders that will respond to the needs of the world and who would allow the gifts of all to be used for the world,” said Jefferts Schori, while visiting Titusville’s St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church last week.

Church critics such as Cocoa Beach attorney Sheldon Stevens, who sued the Orlando diocese in the 1990s on behalf of four clients who reported sexual abuse by priests while attending St. Mary Catholic Church in Rockledge, want to see that lingering scandal addressed more aggressively.

Hundreds of other cases stretching back decades were uncovered in the U.S., with investigations showing accused priests were transferred from parish to parish after allegations were made. Stevens and other church observers allege the church’s heirarchy hid vital documents and ignored some reports of abuse.

“They still have a problem because the people in power will remain in power for the foreseeable future,” Stevens said.

As for the papal selection, “I don’t think they’ll pick someone to clean house or directly deal with this situation.”

Magdalena Lopez, direction of the international program for Catholics for Choice, issued a statement on what the advocacy organization sees for the next pope.

“Our hope for the church lies in the fact that one man need not do it all — but he must listen to more of us than just the 115 men who are electing him. Those men represent a look back to the popes who appointed them, popes who took regressive stances on liturgy, academic freedom, sexuality and women,” Lopez said.

For many Catholics, however, while the selection of a new pope may present an opportunity to move forward, some don’t think that should mean altering church doctrine. “The priests are married to the church. He nurtures his wife, the church. You can’t serve two masters,” said Iacobi, a consultant from Melbourne.

However, Iacobi acknowledged that if a new pope brought new understanding regarding certain social issues, he and other Catholics would be compelled to follow.

“Whoever it will be, he’ll be our pope. That means that we will be devoted, obedient to Christ. There’s no wavering. Whatever happens, the Church will stand.”

This piece was originally published by Florida Today.

Catholics for Choice