Pope John Paul II has died, and the world is holding its collective breath. Not since the U.S. presidential election last year did the world community have a chance to be changed so quickly by one person being selected to replace him.
Readers who have followed my columns may think I am relieved the pope I often criticized is gone. I have had harsh words for the former pope in the past, for example of his condemnation of the use of contraceptives even while millions are dying of HIV/AIDS in Africa. But I have always been keenly aware of what faith can manage.
Until I was about 10 years old, my father was an administrator at a boarding school that was part of a Benedictine abbey. While my father was only concerned with the “worldly” part of everyday school affairs, it still meant I got to know the monks in the abbey.
Most of them had quite quirky personalities. Yet what still remains impressive to me to this day is the serenity with which they went about their daily lives, the inner peace the men had while hundreds of adolescent boys were wreaking havoc in the halls of the school.
While I decided sometime in my late teens that organized religion is not my thing, such members of faith have always impressed me. Like the monks I played soccer with — before I could even walk properly — at the Benedictine abbey, John Paul II, who became pope three months before I was even born, always seemed to have this characteristic aura of wisdom.
The Vatican is very aware of the situation that has arisen due to his passage. Well before the pope was pronounced dead, Cardinals returned to Rome. They did so not only to be with the ailing pope, but also to be there to choose a new pope should the need arise. A meeting was scheduled to occur this morning to lay the groundwork of such a selection process.
The post of leading the Roman Catholic Church has always been a prestigious one. It may not have all the trappings of centuries past, when the pope not only oversaw matters of the church but also had a heavy influence in political and social matters. Oftentimes the pope selected, or was at least needed to confirm political leaders, a practice that by today’s standards would go against most of our democratic beliefs.
But the pope nevertheless remains the head of the Catholic Church and its more than one billion followers. This gives the pope an influence few other leaders — be it in politics or other religions — have.
In the past this was not always a positive influence. Crusades, wars and suppression of scientific advances can all be, in part, blamed on such rulers of the past. Recent news involving Catholic priests molesting underage boys only added to the image of a Catholic Church crumbling.
But John Paul went a different route. Early on in his career he decided to be a more humble pope and elected to not have the traditional papal coronation ceremony, instead opting for a less formal inauguration. Later on he became the most traveled pope in history, visiting far-flung nations on more than 100 trips.
Naturally there were times when my opinion differed from the pope’s, such are the shortcomings of a monotheistic organization like the Catholic Church. But with that power also comes an incredible opportunity.
Whoever is elected to become the next pope will have the opportunity to reshape the community that directly influences one-sixth of our planet’s population and indirectly influences the remaining ones.
Such an influence would go beyond national borders, and may be exactly what we need in this age of increasing conflict. Setting such a new tone for the world community is extremely difficult, but a new pope would have the gravitas to make it happen.
Sebastian Meyer is a seniormajoring in geography andis the Oracle Opinion Editor.firstname.lastname@example.org