These are historic times. For the first time since the late 1200s, a Pope has resigned. Like a monarch, the Pope has never really had an opportunity to retire, they have died in place. Even the other Pope who resigned, Celestine V, did not really retire. Shortly after his departure the next Pope had him arrested and imprisoned for the last two years of his life. Celestine (nee Peter) considered himself too old to fill the post which he held for only 15 months. He had been a hermit, and wanted to return to that life. He was in his mid to late 80s, the records are not that precise.

The current events could possibly be one of the most intelligent moves made by an elder statesman in recent history. Pope Benedict recognized that his age was impeding his ability to function as the Pope and he is stepping aside. This is a grand opportunity for all of the Cardinals to be involved in the conclave without the overshadowing cloud of morning for a deceased Pope. In the modern age, access has not been as much of a problem as in the past. At least half of the Cardinals must be present, but until the 20th century, there was seldom more than that minimum available. The conclave is supposed to start ten days after the death (or resignation) of the last Pope. The conclave should not last very long, but history has shown conclaves to last years.

The conclave is closed, no communications with the outside world until a decision is made. This isolation provides a contemplative atmosphere to allow the Cardinals to pray and listen for direction from the Holy Spirit. To the non-religious and even to non Catholics, this may seem quaint or odd, but the Cardinals do meditate and try to discern the best choice by a spiritual method. The votes are written on slips of paper, which are counted first to make sure there are only as many votes as Cardinals, then for a majority vote for each name. These ballots are burned whether there is a choice or not. Chemicals are added to the ballots to make the smote black when there is no choice and white when a choice has been made. The choice is made when one name gets more than 2/3s of the vote. Any Catholic man older than 18 is eligible, but for the last 200 years, the choice has almost exclusively from the council of Cardinals.

When the new Pope is selected, there are several major issues that will have to be addressed. Some of these issues have not been mentioned in any media, but are important none the less. High on the list and mostly forgotten is the fait of several priests who were accused of sexual abuse who have taken refuge in the Vatican. It is interesting that the Church has taken the stand that there are no boarders when discussion American immigration policy, but the boarders of the Vatican are intact for protecting a small group from prosecution. There is an assumption of innocence, but running and hiding in the Vatican does not allow justice to be served. The Church has complete sway on matters spiritual within the Church, but matters of civil crime must be addressed by civil authorities.

Another major issue that is not high on the public attention, is the reorganization of the Church hierarchy. The balance of Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals is still based on the distribution of the Church in the fifteenth century. The tradition of the leader of a specific parish having a certain position must be addressed, similar to the dead districts in the English Parliament. There are a disproportionate number of high offices in Italy and a sad lack in Latin America.

Married Priests are an issue as well. Many would claim that this is an innovation, but in truth, priests were not required to be celibate for several centuries into the history of the Church. Peter the Apostle himself was married. Celibacy is a special commitment. Celibate priests will always be necessary for the health of the Church, but allowing married priests will prevent the crisis of priesthood that has been building over the last few decades. It may surprise many that there are married priests in the Church. If an Anglican, Episcopal or Orthodox priest converts to Catholicism, that Priest may be a priest in the Catholic Church without having to give up his wife.

The new Pope will have many additional concerns. He must address them while having the specter of the resigned Pope living just on the edge of view. He must continue the drive that Pope John-Paul II started in developing interest in the Church among young people. He must continue the fiscal cleaning that Pope Benedict started to keep the Church solvent.

In the end, the Cardinals will choose. For the good of the Church, all Catholics and most Christians are praying for their choice to be inspired.

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Martin writes about writing in his weekly column Ramblings from Martin.

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