After a month of politics, analysis, speculation, anonymous sources and history lessons, we've finally said “Habemus Papam!”
It took less than two full days for the College of Cardinals to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the next leader of the Catholic Church, and his election was accompanied by much of the same frenzied media coverage that characterized the prior month.
Papal elections already hold a natural intrigue for people, but by becoming the first pope in almost 600 years to resign, Pope Benedict XVI ensured that the public fascination and media obsession with the election of his successor would be magnified many times over. Since his announcement early last month, you haven’t been able to shake a thurible without hitting some sort of coverage of the resignation and conclave.
But now that it’s over and Cardinal Bergoglio is now Pope Francis, does any of it really matter? Outside of pure fascination, is there any reason that a Jew from Minnesota should care about the leader of a different religion headquartered half a world away?
There absolutely is.
For all the talk of the “Rise of the Nones” (or religiously unaffiliated) in America and the secularization of Europe, there is no doubt that we live in a world firmly based in religious faith and belief. According to some statistics, more than 85 percent of the world’s population, or around 6 billion people, consider themselves followers of one of 17 main religions. As interconnected as our world has become, it stands to reason that somewhere in all of our travels, we are going to come across someone with different religious beliefs than our own. The largest piece of the religious pie belongs to Christianity, with around 2 billion adherents, and even they are surrounded by 4 billion people with different faiths than theirs, not to mention the around 1 billion people that don’t believe in any religion.
Our religious diversity and our increasingly globalized lives make it paramount that we possess an understanding of those with different belief systems than our own. And what better way to gain that kind of understanding than through the leaders of those belief systems?
That’s why, while it may have gotten overwhelming, the media saturation over Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and the ensuing conclave was incredibly beneficial, especially for non-Catholics. When else are we as journalists going to be given such an obvious platform through which we can educate billions about the inner-workings of a different faith?
That’s also why it matters to me, and should matter to everyone, who the new pope is.
Pope Francis may not be the leader of my chosen religion, but who he is and what he does plays a major role in the world in which I live. Not only can understanding Francis lead to a better understanding of the religion he leads, but it can also lead to a better understanding of the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, according to Vatican statistics, including around 70 million in the United States. Anyone who acts as a leader for that many people wields an incredible amount of power and influence in our world.
This fact is not unique to the papacy or Catholicism. In all religions around the world, clergy and religious leaders play incredible roles in both the spiritual and day-to-day lives of their parishioners.
For thousands of years, Jewish communities all over the world have turned to their rabbis for everything from religious blessings to life advice to legal judgments. In the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” it was the rabbi that assured Tevye that there was nothing explicitly wrong with a man and a woman dancing together at a wedding.
Pastors, priests, imams, and other religious leaders serve as confidantes, advisors, and teachers to people everyday. In every community, in every town, in every country, there are religious leaders that are indispensible to those whom they lead.
Now of course, this is not to say that religious leaders, even the pope, hold complete control over their followers. There are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the pope (see the Roman Catholic Womenpriests) just as there are Jews who disagree with their rabbis, Muslims who disagree with their imams, and on and on.
The point isn’t that religious leaders have absolute power – they don’t.
But that rabbi, that pastor, that priest, that imam, that pope does possess a position of influence in many people’s lives. And maybe by understanding that religious leader, we can gain a better understanding of the people around us, especially those with whom we may not agree.