VATICAN CITY — Millions attending Sunday Mass on five continents for the first time since Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement had different ideas about who should lead the Roman Catholic Church next.
Suggestions ranged from a Latin American pope to one more like the conservative, Polish-born John Paul II.
What most agreed on, however, was that the church is in dire need of a comeback.
Clergy sex abuse scandals and falling numbers of faithful have taken their toll on the church, and many parishioners said the next pope should be open about the problems.
Worshippers in the developing world prayed for a pope from a poorer, non-European nation, while churchgoers in Europe said what was more important was picking a powerful figure who could stop the losses in Catholic numbers.
Some South African Catholics called for what they said was a more pragmatic approach to contraception given the AIDS epidemic devastating that continent.
They also suggested ending the celibacy requirement for priests, insisting on what’s viewed as the traditional importance of a man having a family.
At the Holy Trinity Church in Johannesburg, the Rev. Russell Pollitt said he believed the fact that the numbers of cardinals from the West outweighed those from the developing world lessens the chances of a pope from Africa.
But he didn’t think that necessarily would be a bad thing.
“Our African cardinals tend to be conservative and likely would be less open to any new initiative that I think the church is in need of — someone new to bring about an openness for new dialogue about ecumenism, about our relationship with other religions, about priestly celibacy and homosexuality,” he said.
Yet not everyone was seeking change.
In Washington, a parishioner at St. Matthew’s Cathedral said he sought a continuation of the conservative line of the last two popes in the coming papal choice.
“I’d like to see a very strong leader who would bring the church back to its traditionalist past and its best years, in a sense, picking up where Benedict left off,” said parishioner John Gizzi.
Preparations for electing Roman Catholicism’s new leader begin in earnest today as the cardinals open daily talks to sketch informal guidelines for the next pope and ponder who among them might fill the role.
The idea is to have the new pope elected during next week and officially installed several days later so he can preside over the Holy Week ceremonies starting with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminating in Easter the following Sunday.
The general gatherings, closed-door meetings during the vacancy between a papacy and the conclave to choose the next one, will hold morning and afternoon sessions in an apparent effort to discuss as much as possible in a short time.
The list of challenges facing the church could take weeks to debate, but the Vatican seems keen to have only a week of talks so the 115 cardinal electors — those under 80 — can enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave next week.
High on the agenda will be church governance after last year’s Vatican leaks scandal exposed corruption and rivalries in the Vatican’s bureaucracy. Cardinals expect to be briefed on a secret report to the Pope on the problems it highlighted.
“We should know about some things we don’t have enough information about because of our work or the distance [from Rome],” Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga told Italian television.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston in Texas, noted more than half the cardinal electors had been named since the now-retired Pope Benedict was chosen in 2005 and had to find out how this most secretive of elections is conducted.
“Part of this is learning,” he said.
Cardinals over 80 can attend the general congregations and discuss issues with the electors, but not take part in the conclave itself.
The meetings are also a time for sizing up the undeclared candidates by watching them closely in the debates and checking discreetly with other cardinals about their qualifications.
“I don’t think any of us will go in saying, ‘This is who I will vote for’,” Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said. “You’re faced with a number of choices.”
One urgent decision the cardinals must take is when to go into the conclave.
Only all 115 electors can make the decision and not all are in Rome yet, so it may take a few days before the actual date is set.
Cardinals never reveal publicly who they prefer but drop hints in interviews by discussing the identikit for their ideal candidate. The most frequently mentioned quality is an ability to communicate the Catholic faith convincingly.
Several strike a note of nostalgia for the charismatic late Pope John Paul II after eight years of his shy successor, Pope Benedict, who shocked the Catholic world by becoming the first pope in almost 600 years to resign last month.
Many cardinals say the new pope could come from outside Europe, but it is not clear if the conclave, which has a slight majority of European cardinals, will break the long-standing tradition of choosing only men from the continent.