WASHINGTON – The major issue facing Pope Francis I as the new leader of 1.2 billion Catholics is to ensure the success of the church’s evangelization — that more people are reached with the message of the gospel.
That’s according to former ambassador to the Holy See Jim Nicholson, who spoke with The Colorado Observer as the Vatican began casting votes Tuesday to elect the new leader to replace Pope Benedict XVI.
Nicholson, a Coloradoan, was appointed by former President George W. Bush to serve at the Vatican from 2001 to 2005, and was knighted by Pope John Paul II for his leadership on human rights issues.
Surrounded by formal photographs of himself taken with Pope John Paul II, American presidents and other world leaders in an otherwise modest office overlooking McPherson Square in Washington D.C., Nicholson provided unique insight into the conclave process as well as the trials faced by Catholics and all religions in the U.S.
“The challenges (for the church) is that it’s running right into the challenge of modernity — the world that we’re living in, or secularism, hedonism — and there’s quite a clash about whether or not people can embrace the message of Christ which is a message of love, and care about others, and a certain conformance to a code of conduct,” Nicholson said.
“That’s his job primarily if this church is to persevere and grow. Because there are a lot of forces that are making incursions into that in these post modern societies, especially Europe, but in the United States as well,” Nicholson said.
“I think people of all stripes are sensing there is a real erosion of our moral compass in this country, and I think for many it’s subliminal but I think they see that happening and see the Catholic Church and the leader who is the pope as a moral magnet, a moral pole, a moral megaphone if you will, and that has become relevant to them,” Nicholson said.
Regardless of who was elected on Wednesday, the church is determined to move in a conservative direction and the pope will have to take charge of a religion that is losing members in Europe and the U.S., despite continued growth in Asia and Africa.
“The second leading identified denomination in the U.S. are the people who used to be Catholics,” Nicholson said.
The pope will also have to recognize that the bureaucracy of the church needs to be reinvigorated.
Interestingly, Nicholson said the new pope should help the church reestablish its connection with the worshippers in the pews — Pope Francis I is known as a humble man who rode the bus to work each day.
“I think they should bring in bishops and cardinals from around the world who have been living with the people, who have been in pastoral settings and understand the feelings, the needs and the pain of the people,” Nicholson said. “And be the new evangelization staff for this movement, which I think is absolutely the right thing for the church to be doing. It’s mission is to preach the gospel to get the word of Christ to as many people as it can, not for numbers sake, but for it to affect their lives, to bring them the truth and the peace and consolation that can come with that.”
As for the conclave process, which many in the secular media have criticized as too secretive, Nicholson said transparency would not serve any purpose.
“They televised it up to the moment of taking their oath of confidentiality and secrecy. But the process itself of marking their ballot and voting and the discussions they might have in there, it’s perfectly appropriate to be a confidential session because they talk about people. The public, Catholic or not Catholic, do not need to know the details of what they say about different cardinals and their attributes. It’s one of those very hallowed traditions of the church,” Nicholson said.