As Roman Catholic cardinals gather in the magnificent Sistine Chapel to select a new pope, their conclave, steeped in centuries of tradition, is at a critical crossroads. Will the cardinals vote for a pope who can re-energize the faithful, and restore the trust that has been missing for millions of lapsed Catholics?
The conclave is both fascinating and intriguing. The College of Cardinals will sit at tables amid great works of art, including Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," a fresco on the ceiling, and "The Last Judgment," which covers the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The 115 cardinals eligible to vote will deliberate in absolute secrecy, and they will vote until someone receives two-thirds of the ballots, or 77 votes.
Politics will play a major role in the selection. Rumors swirl around the Vatican of factions, those who favor some reform versus those who wish to preserve the traditions. There is an air of great urgency as well as anticipation surrounding this conclave.
The Catholic Church has been roiled in controversies and crises that have it on the defensive. The sex abuse scandal has cast a dark shadow over the religion, and the Church's handling, cloaked in secrecy, has been disastrous. The impact has been felt in Ireland, Germany, South America and in the United States. Thousands of young men and women were victimized, and millions of dollars have been paid in settlements. This great tragedy is far from over.
The resignation of Pope Benedict the XVI shook the foundations of the Church. The 85-year-old pope stepped down last month citing a "lack of strength of mind and body" to carry on as leader. In addition to the sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict had been recently tested by internal fighting, allegations of corruption, leaks and wiretaps.
The Church itself is being tested by sharply declining church attendance, especially in Europe, and the United States. It is being challenged in South America by growing evangelical movements. While it is still expanding in Africa and parts of Asia, overall the Church is losing its relevance for many Catholics.
The Church's firm stand on birth control, homosexuality, women priests and allowing its clergy to marry does not reflect the feelings of many Catholics, especially in America. Yet, there seems to be little prospect that the new pope will alter the Church's stand on any of these issues.
Will the new pope be an American? For instance, will it be the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, or the humble Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston? The conventional wisdom is that the conclave will not select a pope from a super power. Instead, the frontrunner may be Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, who is widely respected and has steered clear of many controversies. Also getting attention are Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
When the conclave elects a new pope, white smoke will billow from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel. That will be the first sign that a new pope has been selected to lead the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. He will be regarded by the faithful as the successor to St. Peter, the Apostle. But will he be able to breath new life into the Catholic Church?