Picking a pontiff - what should we pray?


It's unlikely perhaps that many of you reading this article right now are Roman Catholic Cardinals involved in the election of the next Pope. (Although if you are, welcome – it's great to have you with us!).

But whoever we are, if we are Christians, then we can – albeit in an indirect way – have a role in the selection of the next Pontiff through our prayers. God invites us to pray about everything, and there is nothing to indicate in the Bible that somehow the power of prayer stops at the gates of the Vatican.

So, what should we pray? Well, apart from anything else, we will want to be praying that the next Pope is someone who seeks to communicate Jesus clearly. Whatever their faults, it seems to me that both Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, have been good at keeping Jesus at the centre in their public proclamations. Indeed, Pope Benedict's final message on Twitter was: "May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives." As an Anglican, I would wish that our recently-retired Archbishop of Canterbury had been as good at this as they have been (having searched some of his articles and talks at various points, sometimes without success, for any mention of Jesus).

More generally, the New Testament gives us some important guidelines for picking church leaders. The Apostle Paul tells his colleague Timothy that an overseer should be "above reproach... temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money," (1 Timothy 3v2-3). They must also "not be a recent convert, or they may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil", and "have a good reputation with outsiders, so that they will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap," (v6-7). Plenty of food for thought there for the Cardinals, I would have thought – and for us in our prayers.

But if you know your Bibles, you will notice that I missed out a couple of sections in that quotation. That's right – Paul tells Timothy that a church overseer should be "the husband of one wife" and "must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect." Paul adds: "If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?" There are various ways of translating the first phrase there, but whatever the precise nuance, the clear implication is that in New Testament times it was quite normal for a church leader to be married, and that there was no intrinsic problem in being so.

And this brings us naturally, then, to the need for a Pope who – by the grace of God – is also a reformer. The cult of priestly celibacy has wrought terrible havoc in the lives of many Roman Catholic clergy, not to mention serious hurt to those caught up in the resulting fall-out – be they secret lovers, secret children, or, horrifically, child victims of abuse. Not only does the Apostle Paul think it quite natural for Christian leaders to be married, he also denounces those who "forbid people to marry" (1 Timothy 4).

Paul continues: "If you point these things out to the believers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed." Is it too much to pray that the next Pope might do just that?

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