Servant of the Servants of God

The resignation and retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the conclave which will soon meet to elect his successor, underscores once again the global interest and nature of the Catholic Church. Another example of the universality of the Church was at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, when the world experienced the largest funeral in the history of mankind. However, during this current Papal transition, we have seen in the news reports the cardinal electors arriving in Rome from every continent and nation to bid farewell to the Holy Father and to begin to reflect together on the needs of the Church and the world.


The cardinals, as they meet prior to the conclave, will listen carefully as their fellow cardinals from around the world speak of the needs of the peoples and nations of their regions and of the needs of the various Catholic and Christian communities in the places where they serve. The human and spiritual needs of people in Africa, Latin America or Asia will be different from those of people in Europe or North America. Their challenge in choosing a successor to St. Peter will be first to determine what qualities, abilities and gifts will advance the mission of Christ and be most beneficial to the entire Church throughout the world.

The conclave to elect a new pope is more like a retreat than what we would ordinarily think of as an election. It is held not in conference room but in the Sistine Chapel. Balloting is preceded not by nominations of likely candidates or debates but by lengthy periods of silent prayer. When the cardinals vote, they do so individually. One by one they approach the altar, kneel, pray for a moment and then in a loud voice swear: “I call Christ the Lord, my judge, to witness that I am voting for the one whom, in the Lord, I think should be elected.” Even the secrecy of the conclave and its proceedings are intended to provide the cardinal electors with the greatest possible freedom to vote their conscience.

It would be mistaken to think of the conclave as being otherworldly in the sense of being detached from the real and urgent challenges and problems of the Church and of the world. Prior to the beginning of the conclave, the cardinals discuss at length the state of the world and the Church. I have no doubt that the urgent topics that have faced the Church in the past few decades will be at the forefront of their minds. These topics will include the scandal of clerical sex abuse, the tremendous growth of the Church in Africa and Asia (and by way of contrast the increasing secularization of the developed world); the shortage of priestly vocations in Western Europe and North America; the persecution and flight of Catholics and other Christians from the Middle East; the threats to understanding true marriage and family life in many societies; the continuing efforts to promote Christian unity; the disregard for human dignity in many ways; increased understanding and reconciliation between the Church and the Jewish people; interfaith dialogue especially with the Muslim world; the environmental concerns of God’s creation; the poverty that scars the lives of over 1 billion of our brothers and sisters; the promotion of peace and how the Church can help to end the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Eastern Congo; and the list goes on.

Through it all, the cardinals are selecting a shepherd to guide the flock entrusted to him by Jesus Christ. They are seeking a man of deep prayer, who knows Jesus and can credibly and attractively invite all men and women to enter into the joy of knowing and loving him. The one they select as pope will not have and will not claim to have the practical or political answers to every problem and situation that presents itself in the world or in the Church. Instead, they will elect a servant leader who is eager to propose Jesus and the new way of life he calls us to.

The extraordinary events of these recent weeks: the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of his successor, are a striking reminder that we live in a interconnected, globalized world. We are truly all connected to each other: every society, every economy, every culture is increasingly linked together. The office of the Bishop of Rome, the visible link uniting the entire Catholic Church spread throughout the world, is a sign of hope pointing to the possibility of overcoming all that divides the human family. A unity achieved not through coercion, conquest and violence, but through dialogue, understanding, goodwill and sacrificial love.

The one who is chosen as pope in the days ahead will assume an ancient title, “the servant of the servants of God”. This title reflects the teaching of Jesus who taught his disciples that, “the greatest among you must be the servant of all, and the first among you must be the slave of all.” (Mk 10:43-44)

As we wait a new successor to St. Peter, I delight in recalling a conversation with Pope Benedict when he turned his attention to our region and told me personally, “Tell the people of Southeast Alaska that they have my prayers.”

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.


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