Paul Wilkes: When in Rome

From John Paul II's funeral to Benedict XVI's election, Beliefnet's correspondent reports on the momentous events in Rome.

This dramatic transformation of a doctrinal watchdog into a gentle pastor has the Catholic world -– and the entire world -– wondering what to make of Benedict XVI. Do his words signal a new, more dynamic and open Catholic Church or, like the blossoms, the flashy onset of still another predictable season?

Many say we should wait and see and, of course, that is what we must do. But let me offer a way to do that. I want to put before you a series of questions, a series of litmus tests, so that we can better evaluate this man -– with the incredibly difficult job he has –- in the months ahead.


Print out this list and tack it onto on your bulletin board or attach it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Every once in a while, take a look. I assembled these questions after consulting a wide range of Catholics -- priests, an advertising executive, a CPA, a former writer for a diocesan paper, an executive at one of our major TV networks, a diocesan staff person, a dozen others.

What do you think? What are your impressions and questions?


  • How is the pope doing in reaching out to those on the margins of the Church, the less-than-perfect, lapsed, or alienated Catholics?

  • Does he show an understanding that there is an ‘ideal’ church of Rome and a ‘real’ church for most people?

  • Has he appointed women and lay people to positions that were previously the province of the clergy?

  • Has he appointed pastoral leaders not only loyalists to key positions, as new bishops?

  • In his talks and in his actions, do we sense the emphasis is more on “obeying the Church” or “encountering the Christ” in the lives of everyday people?

  • Has he allowed theologians to creatively explore paths to God and to freely express their ideas, even those that he might have issue with?

  • Is he giving individual bishops and national bishops’ conferences leeway in seeing the needs and governing in their home dioceses?

  • Is the pope actively seeking the input of his bishops in the governance of the worldwide Church?

  • Instead of papal proclamations from Rome, are we witnessing letters written in collaboration with the laity and clergy from various parts of the world--letters that respond pastorally to church issues?

  • Synods are meetings on a special issue that seek a wide input so that the Church can better function. Are synods under Benedict XVI open to varying points of view, and does the final report accurately portray what the participants brought up?

  • On the “hot button” issues like optional celibacy, women’s ordination, homosexuality, free theological expression -- is the pope listening to those who have views different from his own?

  • Will he support more imaginative thinking on issues that vex the church?

  • Is the pope making honest gestures of sorrow toward the many men and women abused by priests and nuns, admonishing the bishops involved in the cover-up, and insisting on preventive measures?

  • Is he a pope of the people or of the Curia?

  • Is he reaching out in humility and candor to other faiths whose gateway to God is not Jesus Christ?

  • Do we have a sense that this is a new and exciting era in the Catholic Church...or not?

    Anatomy of an Election

    What went on inside the papal conclave that stunned the world not only by acting quickly, but by choosing a conservative loyalist to virtually step into the footprints of the conservative John Paul II?

    Someday we may know the full story, gleaned from words spoken openly or leaked inadvertently by one or some of the 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church who were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel and vowed to secrecy—under the pain of excommunication—not to reveal any of proceedings.

    But after talking to Vatican insiders and others with years of access to the Curia, and after piecing together shreds of evidence from interviews with church leaders and other experienced Vatican watchers, here is this reporter’s reconstruction of what may have occurred.
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