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"Feed my sheep"

March 4, 2013

We have entered into an important period between pontificates known as the sede vacante or interregnum.  As I write this column, the cardinals are gathering in Rome in preparation for the upcoming conclave during which they will elect the next successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ.

The cardinals are already engaged in an important series of meetings during which, both formally and informally, they are getting to know one another and learning about the challenges and opportunities facing the Church in various parts of the world.  These meetings will continue until the conclave begins.  At that point, only the cardinal electors, those under the age of 80, will be sequestered for the work of prayerfully choosing the next pope under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  These are days of great consequence for the Catholic Church and for humanity.  Our task is to pray and fast for the cardinal electors and for the one whom they will choose and who is already known to the Lord.

Under the glare of intense media attention and global scrutiny, a great deal of energy is being expended speculating about who the next pope might be.  What does the Church need?  Should he be a young man, thus pointing to the likelihood of a long pontificate?  Will he be an Italian or will the cardinals look beyond Europe for the first time in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church?  Some say what is needed is a pope who can manage and reform the huge bureaucracy of the Roman curia.  Others focus on making sure the finances of the Vatican are in good order.  Undoubtedly, the next pope will have to continue addressing the consequences of the terrible clergy sexual abuse crisis that began to rock the Church in 2002. 

One thing is certain: There is no going backward.  The papacy of the third millennium has to maintain its recently recovered evangelical focus. Good management and sound organization, as important as these might be, are not enough.

Beginning in the wake of the Second Vatican Council with Pope Paul VI, but especially during the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the pope has moved beyond the walls of the Vatican to embody his duty as chief shepherd of the Universal Church in a new way.  The pope is the Church’s chief evangelist.  Blessed John Paul II was a global pilgrim, not because he loved travel, but because the Petrine ministry of the Twenty-first Century demands it.  Social media is certainly a valuable tool, but it cannot replace personal presence and witness.  More people saw and heard Blessed John Paul II during his apostolic visits around the world than had ever seen any other human being.

Time will tell what the rich legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI may be, but one thing is already crystal clear.  Through his preaching, teaching and writing, he focused our attention on Jesus Christ.  He reminded us that what is primary is friendship with Jesus and communion with him in and through his Church.  The essential path for Catholics is the path of discipleship.  It is from this intimate communion with Jesus in the Holy Spirit that the New Evangelization is born.  We are called to become missionary disciples.  In our time, we are witnessing the Catholic Church’s rediscovery of its evangelical mission for the sake of the world.

The next pope will most likely continue to lead the Church along the path that the Holy Spirit has marked out for us during the watershed events of the Second Vatican Council and these recent and remarkable pontificates.  We should not expect any rupture with the past but rather a grace-filled continuity that is rooted in the Gospel mandate Christ gave to Peter for the sake of the Church:  “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17).