SAO PAULO – Faithful attending Sunday Mass on five continents for the first time since Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement had different ideas about who should next lead the Roman Catholic Church, with people suggesting everything from a Latin American pope to one more like the conservative, Polish-born John Paul II. What most agreed on, however, was the church is in dire need of a comeback.
Clergy sex abuse scandals and falling numbers of faithful have taken their toll on the church, and many parishioners said the next pope should be open about the problems rather than ignore them.
Worshippers in the developing world prayed for a pope from a poorer, non-European nation, while churchgoers in Europe said what was more important was picking a powerful figure who could stop the steep losses in Catholic numbers.
Some South African Catholics called for what they said was a more pragmatic approach to contraception given the AIDS epidemic devastating that continent.
They also suggested ending the celibacy requirement for priests, insisting on what’s viewed as the traditional importance of a man having a family.
Catholics likely will find out this week whether such hopes become reality, as cardinals worldwide arrive in Rome for a conclave that could elect a new pontiff. Many expect the church to pick another European to replace the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned on Thursday.
In Brazil, the Vatican has seen its numbers chipped away by neo-Pentecostal churches offering the faithful rollicking music-filled services and hands-on practical advice. It’s an approach matched by the massive Mother of God sanctuary led by Brazil’s Grammy-nominated “pop-star priest” Marcelo Rossi.
More traditional Catholics snub Rossi’s “charismatic” masses, but many point to his style of aggressive evangelization as the way forward in the world’s biggest Catholic nation, which has seen Catholics drop from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent a decade later.
“I’m certain the most important step in surpassing the challenges facing the church is having a new pope who renews the believers,” said Solange Lima, a 32-year-old new mother who spoke over the roar of a Christian rock band at Mother of God. “A Brazilian pope could do this. Look at the faithful here, this place is a laboratory for what needs to be done.”
The archbishop of Sao Paulo, Odilo Scherer, is considered by many to be Latin America’s leading candidate to become pope.
That message of change was echoed by chimney sweep Zbyszek Bieniek, who was among 200 worshippers at a Mass in Warsaw’s 13th century St. John’s Cathedral. For him, the sex abuse scandal that has enveloped the church will be the next pope’s most pressing challenge.
“The key thing will be to clear the situation and calm the emotions surrounding the church in regard to the comportment of some of the priests, the cases of pedophilia and sexual abuse,” Bieniek said. “The new pope should tell the truth about it and make sure that such things don’t happen again and are no longer swept under the rug.”
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, is still much admired in his native Poland and elsewhere, and many faithful around the globe said the next pope should strive to be as beloved as him.
“I have been praying for a new pope to be just like Pope John Paul II, who was close to the people and was very humble,” said Charlene Bautista, while attending Mass in the working-class Baclaran district in Manila, Philippines.
The Southeast Asian country, for the first time, has a cardinal being mentioned as a papal candidate, Father Antonio Luis Tagle. That encouraged the Rev. Joel Sulse as he celebrated Sunday Mass at the Santuario de San Antonio parish in an upscale residential enclave in Manila’s Makati business district.
“How we wish that, you know, there will be a pope coming from the third or fourth world,” he said, so that the pontiff would understand the suffering in poor nations.
Some were looking for even more radical change.
Nigerian medical laboratory technician Boniface Ifeadi, who was worshipping at the Holy Trinity church in Johannesburg, said while he believes in abstinence, the reality of human nature makes it difficult to follow church doctrine that’s generally against condom use. Benedict did say in a 2010 interview that if a male prostitute were to use a condom to avoid passing on HIV to his partner, he might be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.
It was a significant shift given the Vatican’s repeated position that abstinence and marital fidelity were the only sure ways to stop the virus.
Some nuns and priests even give out condoms in Africa, which has the highest number of AIDS victims of any continent in the world. South Africa suffers the biggest number of AIDS cases of any country.
“The church must take sexuality out of its preaching because what they are saying is not what is happening on the ground and that is why they are losing members,” said Ifeadi, a father of three girls.
The Rev. Russell Pollitt of Holy Trinity said he believed the fact that the numbers of cardinals from the West outweighed those from the developing world lessens the chances of a pope from Africa, but he didn’t think that necessarily would be a bad thing.
“Our African cardinals tend to be conservative and likely would be less open to any new initiative that I think the church is in need of – someone new to bring about an openness for new dialogue about ecumenism, about our relationship with other religions, about priestly celibacy and homosexuality,” he said.
Yet not everyone was seeking change.
In Washington, D.C., a parishioner at St. Matthews Cathedral said he sought a continuation of the conservative line of the last two popes in the coming papal choice.
“I’d like to see a very strong leader who would bring the church back to its traditionalist past and its best years, in a sense, picking up where Benedict left off,” said parishioner John Gizzi. “Pope Benedict had a tough job, much like Rudy Guilianni in New York, and he cleaned up a mess. He took a lot of criticism for it, he made enemies, but he left the place better off when he came in.”