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The Next Pope and the Great Commission

The Next Pope begins with the premise that we are living in apostolic times – times that require every Catholic to be an evangelist – rather than Christendom times.


In The Shoes of the Fisherman, crusty old Cardinal Leone, canvassing votes for a surprise candidate just before the election of a new pope, is deeply moved by a quiet admonition from a Syrian cardinal named Rahamani: “Always you search a man for the one necessary gift – the gift of cooperation with God. Even among good men this gift is rare. Most of us, you see, spend our lives trying to bend ourselves to the will of God, and even then we have often to be bent by a violent grace. The others, the rare ones, commit themselves, as if by an instinctive act, to be tools in the hands of the Maker.”

For some reason, I thought of Cardinal Rahamani while I was writing The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, which has just been published by Ignatius Press. So perhaps the fictional cardinal’s words had some indirect influence on the ending of this small book’s reflection on Peter’s Chair and its role in the 21st-century Church –

 “The next pope must be, above all, a radically converted disciple: a man formed in the depth of his being by the conviction that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, who reveals to the world the face of the merciful Father and the truth about humanity, its dignity, and its destiny. The intensity of the next pope’s relationship with the Lord Jesus, and the wisdom of his discernment of what the Lord Jesus is asking of him at any given moment, will determine whether his papacy advances the cause of the Gospel or frustrates the Church’s evangelical mission.

“That is why the next pope needs, and deserves, the prayerful support of the entire Catholic world.”

I have no idea when the next papal conclave will take place. Nor do I have a settled view of who the next pope should be, and still less on who he will be. My book is not about handicapping possible candidates for the papacy or profiling them. Rather, it’s an agenda for the Catholic future. Recent papal history suggests that certain qualities are needed in the Bishop of Rome at this turbulent period in history. Reflecting on those qualities helps everyone understand this Catholic moment and its demands more clearly.

Over the past 30-some years, I have had the privilege of extensive conversations with the popes of the last four decades. And during that time, I’ve also been privileged to be in close contact with Catholics in many circumstances throughout the world. Those privileges created a debt, and it struck me earlier this year that one way to satisfy that debt would be to reflect on what Petrine, papal leadership might look like in the middle decades of this century by drawing on my experiences with Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and a myriad of fellow-Catholics.

The Next Pope begins with the premise that we are living in apostolic times – times that require every Catholic to be an evangelist – rather than Christendom times: times in which the ambient public culture transmits the faith. The three popes I have known personally have all recognized this, each in his own fashion. That recognition must set the context for the next pope’s response to the Lord’s instruction to Peter at the Last Supper:  that Peter’s unique role among the apostles would be to “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Petrine leadership in the Church of the New Evangelization thus means empowering the people of the Church, in every state of life in the Church, to be the missionary disciples they were called to be at their baptism.

How does a pope do that? He does it by means of an intense, ongoing dialogue with the Lord. He does it by putting Christ and the Gospel at the center of his own preaching and teaching. He does it by safeguarding and explaining the truths of Catholic faith, so that the Church’s bishops, priests, religious, and laity are challenged to live the adventure of Catholicism in full. He does it by manifesting in his own life the joy of the Gospel and a willingness to suffer for the Gospel. He does it by undertaking essential reforms in the Church (and especially in the Vatican), so that the Church is seen to live what it proclaims.

All of that is explored in greater detail in The Next Pope, which I hope will provoke a useful conversation about the Catholic future.

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About George Weigel 354 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. In this article George Weigel delineates with clarity exactly what we Catholic Christians have needed, need today, and will need to do mañana , hopefully with the type of pope we will have, as he describes him. But as I was reading his fine article, I thought that regardless of who is the next pope, we need mature leaders/evangelizers/missionary-disciples. ‘Catholic childish’ needs to be thrown out the window. Rather, we need Catholics with the attitude of “I got way too much in my hands and with it I will collaborate with God to transform the world. The world needs me. Period. Catholic wimp is over.”

    • I would remind you that the Great Commission is not to transform the world, but to make disciples and teach them Christ’s ways. We’ve been getting this wrong for a long time, and we need to start getting it right. The church is not an organization for making the world a better place. It is meant to be an alternative to the world.

  2. This article (and surely the book) is a welcome rarity in its distilled wisdom and clarity. And most fitting in light of recent COUNCILS—this year being the 150th Anniversary of Vatican I (1870) which was not adjourned, but only “suspended” under duress to await Vatican II (1962-65).

    Weigel concludes by saying that then next pope advances his leadership and his/our apostolic mission partly “by undertaking essential reforms in the Church. . . ” So, enflamed by the Holy Spirit, but also STREET-WISE with tongues of firings?

    POPE FRANCIS has said that doctrine develops without making mistakes, that doctrine is not static: “It grows as trees grow, ALWAYS THE SAME but bigger, with fruit, but always the same, in the same direction” (homily, May 11, 2020, CAPS added).

    ST. JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (the “father of Vatican II”) concurs and prefigures, but is sometimes quoted out of context on what “dynamic” and “same,” together, actually mean: “[…] old principles reappear under new form. It [a philosophy] changes with them [circumstances] IN ORDER TO REMAIN THE SAME. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below [now the misquote:] to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1885, CAPS added).

    EMERITUS POPE BENEDICT’s “discontinuity [but] within continuity!” No social distancing of actual praxis (“binding synodal paths”) from reaffirmed doctrine. The next papacy, how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

  3. As G Weigel details the exigent charisma of the successor to Pope Francis, his laudable vision is an expression of his personal faith convictions. A radical next pope, a “radically converted man formed in the depth of his being by the conviction that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God” is as much a Freudian repudiation of the present pontificate as it is hopeful vision. Most of us who remain within Apostolic Tradition have similar vision nonetheless most of us address the current disaster at the Vatican more pointedly, if not always respectfully yet mostly intelligently and candidly. The deck is already stacked with Francis’ appointment of Cardinal Kevin Farrell as Camerlongo, the appointment of like minded cardinals since 2013. Certainly a man with Weigel’s close experience has much to offer us certainly as well we know the drill. The real challenge for an author of Weigel’s calibre is to address what matters at this moment of our trial.

  4. But maybe—
    (1) Cardinal Farrell will remain fecklessly INERT as when he lived under the same roof with McCarrick for six years and yet suspected nothing; and maybe—
    (2) just enough of the many “like-minded” new cardinals since 2013 appointed from the periphery are also so socially distanced from viral Western corruptions that they will actually VOTE prudently in these newly-apostolic times; and maybe—
    (3) the narcissist position—that chastity simply does not apply to same-sex adult consensualism—will NO LONGER insinuate other exploitable wedge issues via pub(l)ic “binding synodal paths” or less visible deep-church intrigues.

    A Holy Spirit surprise. Such is my proposition, so to speak.

  5. I do not “collaborate with God” but with Pope Francis try to be one of the “collaborators of God” (St Paul). Pope Francis respects the discernment of family members, including adolescents and children, as to the validity of reception of the sacraments in the procreation gift provision by helpers of the family in education for love within the family.

  6. There is a need for the faithful to “get back to the basics” as the article suggests at one point; taking seriously the “Great Commission” by proclaiming the Good News of salvation through Christ our Lord and no other source; not politics, not ideology, not “social justice” etc. There is only one name under which Men will be saved- Christ our Lord. I was struck by hearing the Rev. Franklin Graham proclaim that simply and directly as the answer to all that ails us, including our national discourse on racism. Would that we all became so bold and direct, with a timeless albeit simple message; one that the world will always need until the time of judgment arrives.

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