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A CEO with the common touch: Expert views on the top 5 qualities for a pope

ROME – As the world’s eyes fall on the papal conclave due to begin Tuesday, cardinals must now identify the key characteristics they want to see in the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – and then find the man who matches their vision of the ‘ideal’ pontiff.

So what are the top five qualities that should be on the resume of the next pope? NBC’s team of experts in Rome give their insight into what the cardinals will be looking for.

Management skills

“A pope needs to know how to lead and manage a team,” says Father John Bartunek, a Catholic priest and author who provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching his 2005 best-seller about the film, "Inside the Passion." “If he can’t create cohesion among his primary co-workers – especially the curia and the bishops – all his other efforts will be hampered.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate with a ruthless eye for boardroom-style effectiveness. The next pope could be somebody who can select the right team alongside him.

“Popes of the 21st century cannot be micromanaging their chief executives so they must have good judgment in the men they select to lead local churches as bishops and to manage the machinery of the church,” says George Weigel, NBC Vatican analyst, biographer of Pope John Paul II and author of over 20 books, including “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church".  

Good communicator

“The pope should be a gifted communicator – skilled in a variety of languages but above all skilled in the art of persuasive speech,” says Father Robert Barron, a Catholic priest, author and documentary-maker. “He should also be a man with a global vision, a sense of the universal church and its needs.”

Given the demographics of world Catholicism in the 21st century, a pope without a functional knowledge of English and Spanish is going to be at a serious disadvantage, says Weigel. “And until the Roman Curia changes its ingrained habits and institutional culture, a working knowledge of Italian is also an important attribute for a pope.”

An evangelist

A pope needs “to encourage, inspire, and support every member of the Church in this beautiful and crucial mission,” says Bartunek.

Weigel adds: “The church needs to present the gospel of good news in a positive and compelling way, suggesting to the secular world that there’s more to life than ‘me, myself and I,’ and that a larger horizon of aspiration might actually lead to a happier human life. That’s going to take a missionary, evangelical pope to put a face on the evangelical fervor that is already felt through the church, including in the United States.

“And let’s underscore that: The Catholic church is vital and lively in America. A reclusive man, a man who wears his doubts and his sense of ambiguities on his sleeve or who is shy about the world media, is lacking an important quality.”


“One word can sum up this conclave and papal election: trust,” says Elizabeth Lev, an American living in Rome who teaches in the Catholic studies program at the University of St. Thomas. “Of the many concerns and challenges that the cardinals are airing in these days of meetings, they will all be looking above all for the man they can trust to lead the church forward on its journey.

“Scandals of all kinds have undermined the trust people placed in the church; aggressive secularism and encroachment on religious liberty have shaken the trust many Catholics have towards the outside world; the next pope will have to restore that trust.”

A common touch

The next pope "needs to understand and be in synch with today’s culture,” Bartunek believes. “Otherwise, how will he be able to connect the Catholic faith to the felt needs of God’s children throughout the world?” 

Barron agrees that the cardinals must choose a man “who understands the dynamics of the secularism that has come to dominate so much of Western culture.”

That could point to a candidate with a grounding in the pastoral work of the church.  “John Paul II came to Peter’s chair with a vast amount of pastoral experience that proved to be a great benefit,” says Weigel. “Virtually every one of the major initiatives of his papacy can be traced back to his experience as archbishop of Krakow – as test bed for his pontificate, if you will.”

With those qualities on the agenda, NBC’s experts agree that characteristics such as background and race shouldn’t be up for consideration.

“As it will be difficult enough to find a candidate who has a measure of all these qualities, nationality ought to mean nothing in the final choice,” says Weigel. “It would be irresponsible of cardinal-electors to constrain their choices by dismissing some nationalities, races, or ethnicities, or by giving pride of place to others.”

Bartunek says age, nationality and personality are “secondary” traits that matter only in relation to how they affect the other ideal characteristics, although Barron suggests “it would be wise to choose someone under 70.”

Lev adds: “The conclave will not be a casting call. Trust isn't old or young, tall or short, black or white, media friendly or shy – if you look at the ways trust has been depicted in art over the centuries, it is sometimes a frightened fisherman sinking in troubled waters reaching up to a serene Christ while at other times it is a woman standing tall and steadfast while holding a cross for grace through suffering.”

Finally, Weigel points out anyone actually wanting the job is likely to be ruled out as a result, “not so much for a lack of humility as for a lack of prudence. No sane man seeks the physical and spiritual burden of the papacy. The office seeks the man.”


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