BOSTON — Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley says the next pope will face many challenges, including bringing Catholics back to the church and reaching out to young Catholics around the world.
O’Malley, one of 14 cardinals from North America, will be one of the 117 cardinals in the College of the Cardinals who are eligible to vote in conclave to elect the next pope, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
O’Malley says when he heard Pope Benedict was resigning, he didn’t believe it.
“I must confess, I was rather incredulous,” O’Malley said. “I thought it was one of those jokes that they play on people.”
He says the news blindsided him. Now he’s is in a position he expects to only be in once in his lifetime: a voting member of the College of Cardinals, and thus a candidate for pope. He says he’s excited and nervous about the chance to vote but not about the possibility of being selected the next pontiff.
“I haven’t lost sleep about it and I have bought a round-trip ticket, so I’m counting on coming home,” O’Malley said. “I don’t think that it’s something that I would aspire to … It’s a very, very challenging position and it’s a very lonely position. It’s a very difficult task.”
Cardinal O’Malley says the next pope needs to be a leader of deep faith, but should also have good communication skills, speak five or six languages and have a passion for young people.
He says the College of Cardinals has a large international representation, so it’s possible a cardinal from Africa or South America could be elected.
“I think it would be wonderful. It’s certainly one consideration,” he said. “I grew up in a world where we thought that being Italian was a prerequisite and then all of the sudden we had a Polish pope.”
But, he noted, the majority of cardinals are from Europe.
The new pope, O’Malley says, could bring about changes. O’Malley says he doesn’t think the church will ever allow female priests but he when asked about the possibility of married clergy, he left the door open.
“Things that the church has very clearly said will never change, they will not change,” O’Malley said. “Now there are other things that could change and married clergy is something within the realm of possibilities. I don’t see something happening in the near future or maybe never at all.”
What has affected the future of the church, O’Malley says, is Pope Benedict XVI’s choice to resign. He noted that Pope John Paul II stayed on even though he was debilitated by Parkinson’s disease.
“The Holy Father making this decision now and saying that he’s doing it because he doesn’t feel able to fulfill all the duties and obligations of the ministry, I think that will obviously have an effect on popes going forward,” he said.
The opening of the conclave could start as early as six days after the pope’s resignation on Feb. 28. There are 209 cardinals in the College of Cardinals, but only 117 will be under the age of 80 and eligible to cast a ballot when the voting begins. Election of the new pope requires a two-thirds majority of those voting members.