I received an email recently that rocked me to the core, first with laughter, and then with much more seriousness. It came from a Roman Catholic friend, inviting me to share “what a ‘Lutheran elector’ would be looking for in the next pope.” Is there some cardinal, anxious to hear a word from faithful voices beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic church? I can’t imagine a Lutheran being invited personally inside the conclave as an elector, or even as a delegate-observer. But perhaps it is not too much to dream that insights from a Lutheran might be taken into consideration, even if spoken in the quiet pre-conclave conversations in which the real electors are engaged and not during the conclave itself. So I replied to my friend, and thought I might share those reflections more publicly here as well, as they touch on much of what Pray Tell readers regularly discuss.

[Disclaimer: in what follows, I speak as a Lutheran, not on behalf of all Lutherans. Even with that caveat, I would hope that other Lutherans would nod and say "Yes, I agree," at least with the sense if not all the details of what I'm saying here.]

It wouldn’t be the first time Lutheran voices were quietly present during times of great moment in the life of the Roman Catholic church. One need only look back to Vatican II, a mere fifty years ago, where official delegate-observers from outside the Roman Catholic church were present not only at the public sessions of the council but also in the general congregation  meetings. They did not take part by offering speeches and voting, but were free to mingle with the council fathers, periti, and others, offering their reflections off to the side in a more informal manner.

Some of these delegate-observers offered their reactions to being included in this manner in the council, as reported by America magazine in March 1963:

At the close of the first session, Rev. Dr. Lukas Vischer, research secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, expressed to Amleto Cardinal Cicognani the “gratitude and hope” felt by all the delegate-observers because of what they had witnessed at the Council. He summed up this experience in saying: “We have had free access to all sessions and we have been able to see repeatedly the great efforts made to understand our conviction, our own character, our experiences and our difficulties.” This sentiment came also from Dr. George A. Lindbeck, a Lutheran delegate-observer, who remarked: “Most moving of all, we have been entrusted to an astonishing extent with information about the inner difficulties of the Roman Catholic Church, in the confidence that we will use this knowledge with Christian love and understanding rather than maliciously.”

Another delegate-observer, Oscar Cullmann, was more specific about the reality of this participation:

“But we must not forget that these changes will take place inside the Catholic framework and be based on Catholic principles,” the Lutheran theologian continued. “Nor can we object to this to our Catholic brethren, because it would not be good ecumenism to ask them to become Protestants or Orthodox.

“Still we must face up to reality. Even if the projects for reforms are passed, important differences will persist between us and Catholicism, even the Catholicism reshaped by the council. However, those who hope for renewal know this, and that is why the dialogue must go on, and go on under conditions much more favorable, with this renewed Catholicism.”

Over the last several years, I have served as an intentional interim pastor, working with congregations who are in the midst of the transition from one pastor to another. I’ve worked with small parishes and large ones, and parishes with differing degrees of corporate health. In one case, a beloved pastor had moved to a new position; in another, the previous pastor had retired; and in one tragic case, the pastor had been arrested for child sexual abuse of a developmentally disabled member of the parish. (He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison.) Whatever the circumstances, every parish in transition faces the same five tasks: come to terms with its history, better understand what it means to be a leader within that community, explore its mission, strengthen its ties with the larger church, and prepare to receive its new leader. The particular situation of each transition might determine which of these requires more, but all five of these tasks come into play.

Recently I have been using excerpts from Joan Chittister, OSB in her book The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life to help parishes move through their transitions in leadership. Chapter ten is entitled “Direction and Counsel,” and I have used her words there about leaders and the choosing thereof as a jumping off point for discussions of leadership: “Leaders must be an example to the community of its best self . . . Identifying and choosing good leaders is of the essence of community building. We will become what we choose.” The most powerful line of this most illuminating book, with regard to transitions in leadership, is this:

“It is in choosing our counselors and identifying our leaders that we each take our own soul in our hands.”

This is the task of the Cardinal-Electors, and it is a weighty task indeed.

As I reflect on what kind of leader I would like to see in St. Peter’s chair, Chittister’s words have continued to echo in my heart. The next pontiff’s great task, from my perspective, will be precisely what Chittister names: community building. Like my own Lutheran church, or the Anglican communion, or the Orthodox churches, or the biblical church of Corinth, today’s Roman Catholic church is filled with tensions, divisions, and ongoing struggles over how to be the people of God in today’s world. How do we relate to one another within the community? How do we deal with differences of opinion? How do we relate to the world? Most importantly, how do we see God at work around us?

The key pastoral and theological gift I see as most necessary for a new pontiff to possess is this: the ability to carry on a conversation.

Good conversations are acts of community building, as each participant views the others as gifts from God. Good conversations require that we both listen with openness to the thoughts of others and also plumb the depths of ourselves to offer our thoughts, our prayers, and our insights in return. Great conversations change all who take part in them, healing our brokenness and giving us renewed hope for whatever lies ahead. On the other hand, poor conversations not only leave us in our brokenness, but can add to the pains.

What the Roman Catholic church needs — what the whole Christian church needs — is a pope who loves being part of great conversations.

In pondering Catholic leaders who model the “best self” of the Roman Catholic church to itself, various people come to mind, and since we are talking about choosing a pope, let me start with one: Albino Luciani, better known outside Roman Catholic circles as Pope John Paul I. There has been much speculation about what kind of pope he might have been, had he lived, but a look at his life before his election filled me with hope as I came to know more about him.

For several years as Archbishop of Venice, Luciani communicated with his flock through a series of letters published in a monthly newspaper column. In each of these letters, we get one side of a conversation he has with various historical people and fictional characters — secular people like Goethe, Mark Twain, and Sir Walter Scott; saints like Bonaventure and Thérèse of Lisieux; biblical figures like King David and St. Luke; and characters from the artistic world of imagination like Figaro the barber and Pinocchio. These letters were eventually collected and published together in a book called Illustrissimi, and were only published in English after his death.

In the preface to that English translation, Cardinal Basil Hume wrote the following:

If the recipients [of Luciani's letters] are varied, the subjects he discusses with them are even more so. There is scarcely a modern problem which he does not mention: from the increasing number of “unemployed intellectuals”, to the press; from tourism to the sanctity of life.

Although addressed to so many different characters, and related directly to their particular interests, these letters of Albino Luciani are really meant for you and me, for the ordinary person living in the 1970s. He wrote them as a teaching device, as a means of proclaiming the Gospel, of opening people’s hearts and minds anew to the message of Christianity . . .

Then, too, these letters do reveal the writer. Albino Luciani, Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, is revealed in this book as a man rooted in the Gospel, but with his feet firmly on twentieth century ground and with his eyes twinkling as he calmly surveyed the contemporary, tempestuous, troubled world, smiling at its absurdities, regretting its evil, rejoicing in its good. A man firm in his faith in God, in his hope, and in his love for all the children of the Father, wayward or docile. Humorous when he muses on the follies and frivolities of people, he is firm in maintaining Christian ethics and morals. A consummate teacher, widely read, a born raconteur with a fund of anecdotes and illustrations at his command, a man who understood people from within, who identified with them, yet a man to whom his faith was the breath of life and the source of joy.

This writer is indeed the same smiling man we began to know as Pope John Paul I. The man who called children to talk with him during papal audiences, who deftly turned their unexpected replies to good account in developing the point he wanted to make, who delighted the crowds with his stories.

In short, he was someone who loved conversations, with an enormous variety of people, on the topics that everyone is talking about.

Go read some of those letters (I like the one to Figaro, myself — but note that the Google book link does NOT include the conclusion of the letter), and see how Luciani engages his hearers in their own language, speaking with love and passion and honesty, even when honesty dictates admitting to failures and shortcomings of the church.

Or consider a conversation Luciani had shortly before his election as pope, when asked by a journalist for his theological reflections about the recently-announced birth of the first “test-tube” baby. Luciani’s first point was to say that scientific progress is not an unambiguous good, and one must be careful about automatically embracing or rejecting the new. “Progress is a very fine thing, but not every kind of progress is helpful.” After raising some very important concerns warning about how this technology might be used in the future, he proceeded immediately to offer pastoral words for the child and her parents:

From every side the press is sending its congratulations to the English couple and best wishes to their baby girl. In imitation of God, who desires and loves human life, I too offer my best wishes to the baby girl. As for her parents, I do not have any right to condemn them; subjectively, if they have acted with the right intention and in good faith, they may even have great merit before God for what they have decided on and asked the doctors to carry out.

From there he goes into a longer discussion of the moral issues and historical teachings, but it is his starting point that grabbed me. Let us begin, he said, by looking at the matter in practical terms. In so doing, let us not be quick to condemn those who may be seeking God’s will in faithful yet new and untried ways. Who knows — this may not only be something acceptable, but admirable.

In this little exchange, Luciani exhibits intellectual rigor combined with intellectual humility, pastoral concern with pastoral compassion. New does not automatically mean bad — nor does it automatically mean good. [Let us note, dear Pray Tell readers, that once upon a time, Gregorian chant was brand new.] My prayer for the new pope is that he be someone with a sense of openness to the new, combined with concern for those most particularly touched by the issue at hand.

Not all conversations are easy, however, and whoever is elected pope needs to be willing to engage in difficult conversations as well as comfortable ones. When I think about difficult conversations within the Roman Catholic church, one name comes to mind: Father Thomas P. Doyle, OP. For almost 30 years, Doyle has been trying to have conversations around the ugly reality of the sexual abuse of children by priests of the Catholic church. In a 1993 paper describing the first decade of the child abuse scandal [pdf], he lays out how his initial conversations with bishops and others in positions of power were met with denial, delays, and above all fear, and thus the crisis continued to fester and grow worse. Toward the end of the paper, he poses some difficult questions:

The basic questions remain: why did it take the bishops as individuals and as a group so long to move when in fact they were made aware of the problems and potential solutions nearly a decade ago? Why hasn’t as much genuine attention been given to victims as has been given to the security and financial stability of dioceses and their leaders? Why has no one from among the body of bishops emerged as a true leader in an offensive rather than defensive attack on the problem? Why has the Holy See done nothing, at least publicly?

Doyle writes out of frustration, because he tried to engage the bishops in conversation to address this crisis, and was rebuffed. Sadly, what began as a scandal around the conduct of priests has blossomed into a scandal around the conduct of bishops, in part because the bishops did not want to have the painful but necessary conversations about the problems in the church. The diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where I reside, is now presided over by a bishop who has been convicted of failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the proper authorities.

The Roman Catholic church needs a pope who is not afraid of difficult conversations.

But difficult conversations are nothing new for the church. The book of Acts recounts the debates and discussion held around the place of Gentiles in this new Jesus community, and the results were not always pretty. Paul was stoned in Lystra (see chapter 14), and riots broke out in Ephesus (chapter 19). In Jerusalem, the leaders of the community gathered to sort things out, wrestling with discerning how God was at work in the world around them, and how God called them to act going forward. Those first century experiences also demonstrated how leaders can faithfully wrestle with change — Paul on the road to Damascus and Peter in the home of Cornelius — and come out in very different places as a result.

If that was the great conversation of the first century of the church, one of the grand works of the Spirit in the 20th century were the liturgical conversations and convergence that took place, within and beyond the Roman Catholic church. Even before Vatican II was a glimmer in Pope John’s eye, liturgically-minded Lutherans, Catholics, and others were examining many assumptions about liturgy and worship, and finding at least some of them wanting. More and more, Lutherans moved toward a more frequent celebration of the Eucharist, even as Roman Catholics moved toward vernacular in worship. Christians who share a common secular language began working toward a common set of liturgical texts — texts of the mass, various common prayers, lectionary choices, etc.

Once upon a time, Lutherans felt that for a Lutheran to enter a Catholic church was to invite lightning to strike, and the same held true for Roman Catholics in reverse. Shared liturgical texts became a sign that despite our differences, we all seek to proclaim the same love of God to a broken world. Hymnologists, hymnal editors, and liturgical commissions began doing the same, drawing on the riches of traditions beyond their own. When present at weddings, baptisms, funerals, ordinations, and other special celebrations, these shared texts and hymns reinforced a sense of common mission that transcends our divisions, even if disagreements remain on how best to pursue that mission.

The history of liturgical reform proves that we are capable of having these conversations. Indeed, Pray Tell exists to have these very conversations. Sadly, more recent history also proves we are also capable of not having them.

Over the last decade or so, internal Roman Catholic debates, discussions, and decisions have had the effect of rolling back this kind of conversation. In an effort to exert more control within the Roman Catholic church over what constitutes Roman Catholic worship, the conversations were not simply halted, but rolled back. Pray Tell has documented at length the pain within the Catholic community of seeing these two-way conversations replaced with one-way dictates, and my fellow Lutheran Paul Westermeyer was equally eloquent on the damage to ecumenical conversations.

For the sake of us all, I pray for a pope who loves great and holy conversations.