The unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI overshadowed every other news story on Feb. 11. The announcement that Benedict would leave office at the end of February was significant news not only for the earth’s 1.2 billion Catholics but people of all faiths – including us Baptists.
Adherents to Christianity total just over 2.1 billion, so Catholics are the dominant Christian faith globally. Estimates of followers of Islam -- the second most populous religion -- are in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion.
Due in part to sheer numbers, the Pope is a powerful figure. The U.S. and other nations maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican (a controversial recognition to most Baptists). While Catholics certainly do not agree on every issue, the Pope nonetheless has the ability to effect remarkable change – or to stand in the way of change – regarding Catholic dogma, life decisions and actions.
The Pope has influence over how isolated or how open to broader relationships the Catholic Church will be.
For instance, 14 years ago Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made a 31-hour whirlwind visit to St. Louis. The Pope held a special ecumenical service at St. Louis Cathedral. The Archdiocese of St. Louis invited a number of non-Catholic Christians to be special guests. A few of us were Baptists. Broadening relationship was an important goal of John Paul’s.
Why should Baptists and others care about the next Pope? Very simply, this person has an inordinate amount of influence throughout the world not only in faith and practice but also in matters that affect stability in the nations of the world and the ability of faith groups beyond Catholicism to practice their own faith and conduct humanitarian/spiritual ministries strategically.
It is important for Christians of various persuasions to acknowledge their relationship as fellow believers and to treat each other in ways that will enhance the purposes and will of Christ in our individual spiritual expression and in our joint endeavors.
Even we non-Catholics who might not agree with many things about Catholicism would do well to pray that leaders choose wisely in the selection of a godly person to succeed Pope Benedict. This person will be entrusted with an amazing level of influence on the world stage.