UPDATE 9:49 a.m.: The heavy wooden door to the Sistine Chapel has been closed and locked, signaling the start of the conclave to elect a new pope to succeed Benedict XVI following his stunning resignation, the Associated Press reports.
Monsignor Guido Marini, master of liturgical ceremonies, closed the double doors after shouting "Extra omnes," Latin for "all out," telling everyone but those taking part in the conclave to leave the frescoed hall. He then locked it.
Benedict's resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed deep divisions among cardinals grappling with whether to pick a manager who can clean up the Vatican bureaucracy or a pastor who can inspire Catholics at a time of crisis.
PREVIOUSLY: On Tuesday, Catholic Cardinals will begin meeting in Rome to choose the next Pope in a conclave that’s expected to last several days. A visit to a couple of churches in Los Angeles provided some insight into what parishioners in the nation’s largest archdiocese are looking for in the new leader of the church.
First stop was Dolores Mission , a small Catholic Church in Boyle Heights. It’s so small in fact, that you might miss it if it weren’t for the music emanating from the modest stucco building. Inside, Father Scott Santarosa holds mass for a mostly Latino congregation and a few visitors from other parts of town. The church is a magnet for those seeking a progressive service.
After the mass, as parishioners gather in the courtyard for food and as children play, Father Scott explains that even while he’s paying attention to who the next pope might be, he feels detached from the Vatican.
“I do feel like there’s a disconnect. I feel that what is important to us here at this church, and to me personally, is really orthopraxy , which is true praxis , which is putting the words of Jesus into practice and getting that right," Father Scott said. "Whereas it seems like the Vatican and Rome are more concerned with orthodoxy, which is true belief like as long as you believe in the right thing.”
This practice Father Scott says he refers to is caring for the poor, working for social justice and advocating for the rights of immigrants. This, he says, is the cornerstone of what he considers true Catholicism. He says the church abuse scandal has taken the focus off of these issues. But the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict last month might actually provide an opportunity to have a new leader who will clean house.
“Maybe the timing is also quite good because it allows us to put this chapter of abuse behind us, fr om top to bottom,” Father Scott said. He added that the new pope could play a role: “ by really saying something that would open our hearts and help us forgive ourselves and forgive our clergy, forgive our bishops.”
Father Scott points out that some of the Latino members of the congregation are really paying attention to what happens in Rome.
“I mean they’re very faithful, I would say, and they want to see the pope that is cariñoso , that is caring of them, respecting of their culture and their country," he said. "Because Latino Catholicism is loyal they are going to be watching to see who is the next pope, they will be keyed in.”
He adds that many people who come to the Dolores Mission who are not Latino are probably less interested.
Jose de la Torre is definitely in the interested camp. He’s an aerospace engineer who’s worked at Boeing most of his life. He came from Mexico as a young child and moved to Boyle Heights. Since then he’s moved to Whittier, but he returns every Sunday to his favorite church. He’s quite excited about the prospect of a new Pope.
“He’s our leader and he’s the one that brings the whole Catholic Church together,” de la Torre said. “To me, it is very important. I hope we choose a pope that wants to follow the steps of Jesus Christ, which means trying to help the poor, the people that don’t have anything."
Margie Huitron, on the other hand, isn’t quite as keyed in. She’s been coming to Dolores mission since she was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago and she thinks that whoever is chosen to be pope, he’ll have little impact on her life.
“You know I really don’t think it’s going to affect me in any way,” Huitron said. “The Holy Father will be the Holy Father and that’s how I will respect him and think of him. But what’s going on in our parish with our people, that’s what affects me.”
She thinks whoever is elected Pope will face multiple challenges, even beyond the sexual abuse scandal that has been rocking the Catholic Church for years. The new pope, she believes, is going to have to ask himself some tough questions.
“Change needs to be made and am I the person to do it? Can I really get in there and say we're going to change the way we look at the gays in our community, the way we look at women? Are we going to be more inclusive of women? Are we going to look at the celibacy? How do we deal with the abuse that’s gone on in the church?" she said.
Huitron believes the Pope is going to have to be a very, very strong individual to take on those questions.
The sentiments at Dolores Mission mirror the results of a recent New York Times/CBS news poll which found that slightly more than half of American Catholics feel the Church is out of touch with their needs. They might have a close connection with their Parish priests, the poll shows, but the Vatican’s conservative policies makes it feel more than just physically distant to most Catholics.
Across town, in the upscale neighborhood of Santa Monica, is the St. Monica Catholic Community church . It’s an imposing structure that takes up the whole block. And while its choir is bigger, and its walls and ceilings are adorned with frescoes, the message is not that different from what one hears at the far more modest Dolores Mission.
Delis Alejandro is director of outreach and pastoral care at St. Monica’s. She thinks the process of choosing the Pope is indicative of just how removed the Vatican feels to many American Catholics.
“What a lot of people are even confused about is what makes up the Vatican. Even hearing the process of how they’re choosing the Pope is a surprise for many. People really don’t know that much. So there’s that whole gap in people’s understanding of role of the papacy, of the Vatican,” Alejandro said. “You know, right now, for a lot of Americans, the Vatican is like a parent who says this is right and this is wrong. And that’s just it, that’s the answer and it’s final.”
Alejandro hopes the Vatican can change, especially now in choosing a new Pope.
"The church has been challenged in many ways, especially in the last decade,” she said. “And continues to be challenged with no end in sight. Personally, I’d like someone to come in and put things in order.”
She’s just not sure that the Cardinals will have that kind of foresight
David Cunningham also worships at St. Monica’s. He’s a twenty something IT specialist. And he speaks about his concern over the direction the church has taken while holding his squirming young son.
“We're getting much more strict and much more orthodox,” Cunningham said. “And all that does is exclude people. Especially in some place here like in Santa Monica or California, we have a lot more liberal and open-minded type people and those issues just aren’t being dealt with."
He thinks that unless the conclave elects a progressive pope, there’s a chance more American Catholics will leave the faith.
“My biggest hope is I have a three year old son and I want him to enjoy the fruits of my faith,” he says looking at the boy. “But I’ll be honest with you, if it keeps going the way it is I can understand if he didn’t want to join the Catholic Church.”
That seems to be the recurring note, at least in a couple churches here in L.A., however far apart they might be geographically and economically: Many Catholics want a Vatican that will listen to them and they want a pope whose values will bring the church into the 21st Century.