Curtains are hung on the central balcony of St Peter's basilica ahead of the new pope's election on March 11, 2013 at the Vatican. | FILIPPO MONTEFORTEFILIPPO MONTEFORTE~AFP/Getty Images
Updated: April 13, 2013 6:16AM
It is perhaps portentous that the Vatican conclave to pick a new pope is close to this year’s Easter holiday, the church’s celebration of rebirth.
Many Catholics feel the church needs strong new leadership, both organizationally and theologically. They hope for a leader who can reform the institution’s hierarchy while offering an inspiring message to the world.
In Rome, the Holy See’s finances, especially the Vatican bank, have been tarred by turmoil and scandal. Clerical sex abuse scandals have made steady headlines. Infighting has sowed discord at the highest levels. And the church has seemed to struggle to understand — and influence — secular trends in the West, particularly in Europe, where attendance at Sunday mass is steadily falling.
No doubt those issues are on the minds of the 115 cardinals who — after a week of discussing issues facing the church — will gather in the Sistine Chapel starting Tuesday to secretly select the 266th pope.
Reports from Rome have focused on likely struggles between cardinals aligned with the Vatican hierarchy and reformers. As for theology, the assembled cardinals don’t appear to have a significant liberal wing. But it’s been just 35 years since the College of Cardinals surprised the world by selecting the first pope from outside Italy since the early 16th century. Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement was the first in six centuries. Perhaps when white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling a candidate has secured the 77 votes required to win, another era of change will begin.
The world’s 1.2 billion Catholics have the most riding on this vote. But non-Catholics have a stake, too. The pope is a major geopolitical figure; an effective pope can be a true force for good.