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Catholic Church's Reach, Challenges Lead to Worldwide Attention on Conclave

Cardinals selecting new pope
Servizio Fotografico L'Osservatore Romanov via Getty Images

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation last month, the news catapulted into headlines worldwide. Media coverage has continued nearly nonstop, as the Catholic Church prepares to select its next leader. Some outlets have almost treated the process as they would a sports tournament – with analysts and even odds on who will emerge as the next pope.

Fr. Steven Avella gives three reasons why he believes the press and public are obsessed with the transfer of power within the Catholic Church. Avella is a professor of history at Marquette University and a Catholic priest.

“The pope is an international figure. His words, his actions, his decisions affect the lives of over a billion people on the planet and the institutional expansion of the Catholic Church is quite significant,” Avella says.

The second reason for the fascination, Avella says, is the somewhat exotic and secretive Conclave process. He likens it to the level of attention the British monarchy will receive when Queen Elizabeth’s rein ends.

Finally, Avella says the world is watching because while the pope has great influence for good, he can also be a flashpoint, even within the church.

“Whichever way this election goes, whoever stands out on that Loggias in (St.) Peter’s (Basilica) is going to have a window of opportunity to make his case and to convince the world that he is a credible representative of Christ,” Avella says.

Avella says people want to know who will lead the church in confronting major challenges – also reported widely in the media.

“Well the obvious number one, the one that’s of course accentuated the most in the press and is a serious problem, is the sex abuse crisis,” Avella says.

Avella says for a time, the sexual abuse of children by clergy was considered an American problem and reported mainly here. But the crisis has since surfaced internationally, including in Ireland, Latin America and Australia.

Avella says people may be interested in whether the church will pick a leader likely to address the role of women as priests.

“If Christians take seriously the dignity of all human beings, if that is a central feature of our identity as believers in Jesus Christ, how then do we treat women? What is the role and status of women given that ongoing and challenging demand of equality? What do we do?” Avella says.

While American Catholics may be quite interested in the direction the new pope heads on the role of women in the church, other countries watching may be less interested in that topic, according to Fr. Tim Kitzke. He’s a co-pastor of four parishes in the Milwaukee area.

“Yes, of course we have to deal with those issues that are important to us as Americans, but also realizing that we have to do it in the context of a universal church at which the questions are at different stages of development, and the important thing is that we just talk about it,” Kitzke says.

Kitzke says his parishioners are watching the pope selection process closely, hoping to be inspired by the new leader.

“I think the world needs hope right now, and not just in the church, in the world at large. I think one of the qualities that just seems to be with all of us is this kind of overriding sometimes doom about where things are going,” Kitzke says.

Some leaders of other faiths are keeping watch of the Conclave, and what color smoke billows from the top of the Sistine Chapel.

Ziad Hamdan is imam of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. He says in recent decades, Muslims have had a good relationship with the Catholic Church, even though some Catholic leaders have made statements Muslims found offensive.

“We are engaging them more than any faith community, in interfaith dialogue, and in meetings and we are feeling good about it, and our hope that with the new leadership also this will continue,” Hamdan says.

Hamdan says he hopes the pope who eventually emerges on the Vatican balcony will work for social justice, peace and freedom and for stronger connections between faith communities around the world.