The Next Pope and the Great Commission

George Weigel

In The Shoes of the Fisherman, crusty old Cardinal Leone, canvassing votes for a surprise candidate just before the election of a new pope, is deeply moved by a quiet admonition from a Syrian cardinal named Rahamani: “Always you search a man for the one necessary gift – the gift of cooperation with God. Even among good men this gift is rare. Most of us, you see, spend our lives trying to bend ourselves to the will of God, and even then we have often to be bent by a violent grace. The others, the rare ones, commit themselves, as if by an instinctive act, to be tools in the hands of the Maker.”

For some reason, I thought of Cardinal Rahamani while I was writing The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, which has just been published by Ignatius Press. So perhaps the fictional cardinal’s words had some indirect influence on the ending of this small book’s reflection on Peter’s Chair and its role in the 21st-century Church –

“The next pope must be, above all, a radically converted disciple: a man formed in the depth of his being by the conviction that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, who reveals to the world the face of the merciful Father and the truth about humanity, its dignity, and its destiny. The intensity of the next pope’s relationship with the Lord Jesus, and the wisdom of his discernment of what the Lord Jesus is asking of him at any given moment, will determine whether his papacy advances the cause of the Gospel or frustrates the Church’s evangelical mission.

“That is why the next pope needs, and deserves, the prayerful support of the entire Catholic world.”

I have no idea when the next papal conclave will take place. Nor do I have a settled view of who the next pope should be, and still less on who he will be. My book is not about handicapping possible candidates for the papacy or profiling them. Rather, it’s an agenda for the Catholic future. Recent papal history suggests that certain qualities are needed in the Bishop of Rome at this turbulent period in history. Reflecting on those qualities helps everyone understand this Catholic moment and its demands more clearly.

Over the past 30-some years, I have had the privilege of extensive conversations with the popes of the last four decades. And during that time, I’ve also been privileged to be in close contact with Catholics in many circumstances throughout the world. Those privileges created a debt, and it struck me earlier this year that one way to satisfy that debt would be to reflect on what Petrine, papal leadership might look like in the middle decades of this century by drawing on my experiences with Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and a myriad of fellow-Catholics.

The Next Pope begins with the premise that we are living in apostolic times – times that require every Catholic to be an evangelist – rather than Christendom times: times in which the ambient public culture transmits the faith. The three popes I have known personally have all recognized this, each in his own fashion. That recognition must set the context for the next pope’s response to the Lord’s instruction to Peter at the Last Supper:  that Peter’s unique role among the apostles would be to “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Petrine leadership in the Church of the New Evangelization thus means empowering the people of the Church, in every state of life in the Church, to be the missionary disciples they were called to be at their baptism.

How does a pope do that? He does it by means of an intense, ongoing dialogue with the Lord. He does it by putting Christ and the Gospel at the center of his own preaching and teaching. He does it by safeguarding and explaining the truths of Catholic faith, so that the Church’s bishops, priests, religious, and laity are challenged to live the adventure of Catholicism in full. He does it by manifesting in his own life the joy of the Gospel and a willingness to suffer for the Gospel. He does it by undertaking essential reforms in the Church (and especially in the Vatican), so that the Church is seen to live what it proclaims.

All of that is explored in greater detail in The Next Pope, which I hope will provoke a useful conversation about the Catholic future.

Featured image by Mateus Campos Felipe | Unsplash

COMING UP: Books for the Summer of Our Discontent

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These past few months, I expect many folks have found themselves resorting to the page and the lamp more often; may that literary trend continue long after our public health circumstances change! Since plague time began, I’ve found the following books reassuring, challenging, illuminating, and in some cases just plain fun: which is to say, apt reading in, and for, this troubled moment.

There’s nothing like a quarantine and sheltering at home to rekindle that resolution to read the Bible regularly. Now comes The Word on Fire Bible: The Gospels (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries). The fourfold story of Jesus is lavishly illustrated and the text is complemented by commentaries ancient and modern, which clarify the puzzling and make the familiar come alive anew.

If there were one mentor I’d recommend to a young person seeking wisdom, it would likely by Leon Kass. The newest collection of his essays, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter Books), is chock-full of the insights that follow when a master teacher combines biblical literacy, deep learning in the humanities, and a trained scientist’s grasp of science that is unmarred by an uncritical reverence for scientific achievement. If several hundred Leon Kasses had been teaching in elite American colleges and universities the past 50 years, those institutions wouldn’t have become the playpens of cancel culture they are today – and there would be much less nonsense spouted in public.

That nonsense is also the sorry result of a profound ignorance of American history. One remedy for that – and one way to get today into perspective – is H.W. Brands’ story of the four decades between the War of 1812 and the aftermath of the Compromise of  1850: Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants (Doubleday). I finished the book with a new respect for Clay (arguably the greatest American never to become president); a renewed respect for Webster; and the feeling that Calhoun, for all his brilliance, did the Republic no enduring service except by illustrating what happens when abstract ideology runs amuck.

Like the old grey mare, the Pulitzer Prize ain’t what she used to be. But the Pulitzer committee got it right when it gave David W. Blight its 2019 History award for Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster). Douglass, my fellow native Marylander, was one of the greatest Americans of his time or any time. His firm belief in the promise of the United States as a land founded on the conviction that all are created equal, sorely tried at times, remains an inspiring antidote to the false story of America that’s underwriting a lot of cheap-grace political posturing in the face of injustices today.

David Pryce-Jones is frequently described as one of the last of that splendid breed, the “man of letters.” And while I hope his tribe increases and flourishes, I’m also grateful that he’s shared decades of literary memories in Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime (Encounter Books). David’s mini-sketches of 90 authors whose signed volumes he owns sparkle with wit and insight from cover to cover. Perhaps my favorite thrust from the Pryce-Jones rapier puts touché to the leftie British historian A.J.P. Taylor, “a typical intellectual of the 1930s [who] made sure to enjoy the privileges he was criticizing.”

At a moment when the United States seems to have lost the capacity to produce leaders of intelligence, courage, and the capacity to work with others for the common good, it’s important to remember that we were once such a nation, and within living memory. Two good reminders are Eric Larrabee’s Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War (Naval Institute Press) and Walter Borneman’s The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King – The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea (Back Bay Books). Admiral Raymond Spruance, who won “the war at sea” far more than media-darling Bull Halsey, gets unhappily short shrift from these authors; still, both volumes offer well-drawn, concise portraits of a host of leaders with the human qualities we could use in 2020.

Finally, two books by two great theologians with important things to say about hope, the most urgently needed of theological virtues today: Pope Benedict XVI, The Yes of Jesus Christ (Crossroad) and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? (Ignatius Press). The latter is typically misunderstood and the former typically ignored. Both repay a close, careful reading.