"Father, I have a question I want to ask you."

A local police officer and I had been talking about the New York Yankees, how disappointed I was with their mediocre start, while hopeful that it "was only April." But with that question, the conversation shifted to a more serious tone.

"Sure Terry, what’s up?" I asked, slightly concerned.

His reply? "Who’s the next pope going to be?"

I started to laugh, relieved that my parishioner wasn't facing a more personal dilemma. I explained to him I had no "insider knowledge"on who the "front-runner" could be. In fact, I don’t really know any of the cardinals, with the exception of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington D.C., who ordained me a priest when he was the archbishop of Newark, N.J.

"You’re not asking because you’re planning to put a bet on one of those internet sites predicting the next pope are you?" I asked warily. Then it was his turn to laugh. And come to think of it, he never did respond to my question...

It’s an interesting time for Catholics and all those around the world observing the selection of a new pople. The secrecy, the rare ocurrence of the cardinals convening a conclave, the chimney expelling black or white smoke to signal the cardinals' progress in electing a pope—all of this has fueled people’s curiosity. Last week, a newspaper ran a front page picture with the question: "The Next Pope?" The picture was of Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi of Milan, whom the paper named as the odds-on favorite, but only a few days later the same paper claimed that the front-runner was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

The truth of the matter is that no one knows for sure who will emerge as the next pope. Unlike presidential politics where polls and surveys can (well, at least some of the time) predict who will win an election, all discussions of the next pope is speculation. With a pool of 115 possible cardinals, inevitably someone will be correct in their predictions.

But, an interesting conversation that I had with a fellow priest left me thinking that there is something more important going on right now. During this period of mourning for Pope John Paul II, some of the issues dominating the cardinals' prayers and discussions have been these questions: What is the state of the church? Where do we need to go? Who is best to take us there?"

The priest with whom I was discussing "the next pope" was ordained nearly 63 years ago and is revered and respected for many reasons (not simply because of his endurance.) He has been ministering for more than twice the number of years that I've been alive, posessing a wealth of life experience to which my six years of priesthood and book knowledge pales in comparison.

Yet, my elder mentor and I differ in our political/social beliefs. Although the terms I'm going to use do a disservice in many ways, some would probably describe me as leaning conservative, and he as leaning liberal. I don’t know if either of us would agree with those classifications. I do know that while we might have some opposing opinions about what the focus of the new pope should be, or what his most important challenge will be, we were able to come to an interesting conclusion.

In a lively exchange over, of all things, birth-control (a difficult and complicated issue among Catholics), he commented that "the problem is that the church teaches with such a logic that can be persuasive and at the same time seem to be dismissive to people who feel so far from those ideals." Many a priest who has counseled parishioners who struggle with such an issue (as well as a host of others) can agree with that.

It seems that people who feel they can’t "live up" to the teachings of the church sometimes feel ostracized. Others feel that if they disagree with the church, they are no longer welcome. And yet when we look at Christ teaching the truth of how to live — serving God and one another, he seemed to be able to do it better than we do at times. Even when He was challenging someone he encountered to turn away from sin, His message always seemed to draw people in. How did we become so strained and fractured?

And so all people—people who want woman priests, married priests, or a definitive statement that priesthood remains exclusive to celibate males; poor people and rich people, and yes, even a cop on a beat who placed $20 on the cardinal from Milan—we all look to that chimney for black or white smoke and wonder and speculate about the future. It's easy for us to marvel simply at the history in the making.

But for the faithful, the "who" isn’t as important at this moment as much as the "how." How will this next pope be able to draw together people who seem so polarized in their beliefs, in their wants, in their needs? An eager world awaits...

Father Jim Chern is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in May, 1999 with the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Orange, N.J. He is a 1995 graduate of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and graduated from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School in Clark, N.J. in 1991.

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