PITY the pontiff who succeeds John Paul II. Whether the next Holy Father hails from the old world or the new world or the emerging worlds, he'll have an incredibly tough act to follow. By the sheer power of his personality and palpable grace, John Paul held a disparate church together for more than a quarter century. The man buried today was a global force that demanded recognition regardless of religious, cultural, or political comfort zones.
People may not have agreed with what he said, noted one papal observer shortly after the Pope's death, but they loved hearing it from him. They knew his messages came from a genuinely holy place unblemished by pride or arrogance. They knew he was a man of steeled courage and strong conviction who set out to change the world - and did.
They knew the Polish Pope set out to transform the papacy through an unprecedented evangelical outreach as the most traveled Pope in history - and did. They also knew he single-handedly set out to wrench the pendulum of modern Catholicism to the right of center and did so many times over. But the charismatic leader of a billion Catholics did it all with unquestioned integrity, with natural humility, with disarming humor.
People of all faiths and no faith were drawn to the Slavic Pontiff because he was real. This bishop of Rome was no phony, no stuffy, pinched-nosed hypocrite, no spiritual spinmeister without a core. He was universally admired as a shepherd thoroughly at one with his flock who never tired of prodding them to be better through moral reflection and social activism for human justice.
There is simply no replacing a shepherd so loved. The faithful can only pray his successor possesses some of his pastoral passion, human sensitivity, and boundless purpose to engage both the disgruntled and the devoted. The church may be alive and thriving in south and central America, or Africa and Asia, but it is seriously ailing in Europe and North America, where priests are at a premium and where pews go empty, eventually shuttering churches that can't sustain congregations.
American Catholics have been deeply wounded by countless reports of predatory priests in their midst whose abuse was callously hidden for years by church hierarchy more concerned with protecting the church than her children. The church's continued resistance to full participation of women in its ministry through ordination and ascension to positions of doctrinal influence and decision-making is also a festering grievance of a gender arbitrarily denied.
The absence of any female among the moving procession of priests and bishops and mostly old, white, men in cardinal red striding solemnly into St. Peter's Basilica was a stark reminder of what an exclusionary club the church hierarchy is and will be in the foreseeable future. Once again it is a select group of men who will secret themselves away soon to decide who is best suited to assume the papacy as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Nearly all of the cardinals choosing the next pope were chosen by the one buried today in a crypt below the basilica. That means many of those assembled in the Sistine Chapel share John Paul's traditional, conservative, by-the-book philosophy of governance and will lobby for a leader aligned with the prevailing orthodox perspective. There is plenty of speculation on candidates who might fit the bill of staying the course without exception.
But the new pontiff will lead a church worlds apart from itself where vibrant, growing congregations compete for attention with those struggling to remain relevant. In this hemisphere hurt, angry, and lapsed Catholics clung to the compassion of John Paul when there was nothing else. He was a Holy Father with a heart, uncowed by sinners or saints. His wisdom transcended his words. He was great.
In a world consumed by greed, power, and prestige, the Pole from Krakow spoke pointedly for those overlooked in life. The poor and powerless found hope in his advocacy. John Paul's successor needs to understand the lifeline the late Pope threw to young and old alike.
Whether battling injustice, striking a blow for peace, or addressing the spiritual or material poverty of the masses, the Pope commanded the attention and respect of the world. His was a moral voice on the vices of modernity that had to be heard if not always heeded.
The next Vatican leader has a difficult job ahead, but if he can establish an emotional, caring connection with the needy of the world, like his beloved predecessor, he is halfway there.