The identity of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor is still unknown. Yet we can say with confidence that the next Pope will mark a shift to a younger generation. It’s likely the next Pope will even be a ‘Baby Boomer’ born after World War II.
Pope Benedict reigned with such apparent vigor and such undeniable mental sharpness that many have forgotten he was already the fourth oldest Pope. He resigned on Feb. 28 six weeks shy of his 86th birthday.
Even a new Pope in his early 70s will have been born in the early 1940s. His experiences of history, culture and religion will differ greatly from those of a Pope born in 1927.
Let’s remember that Pope Benedict came of age under the totalitarian government of Nazi Germany. His youth was marked by both the drudgery and horrors of war: shortages, conscription, casualty reports, atrocities and genocide. He witnessed the collapse of a regime he once said “put the future of Christianity into doubt.”
The next Pope might be a man who endured the struggles of Eastern Europe under Communism or the deprivation of life in Africa or Latin America. But the unique experience of an epic like the Second World War is passing out of living memory.
Just as far-reaching and consequential as that war was the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which particularly affected the ‘boomer’ generation.
Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II were both leaders in that council’s effort to renew the Catholic faith, engage with modernity and reach out to other cultures and religions.
The next Pope will likely have been only a seminarian as the council met. He will be marked by the hopes and uncertainties of the post-conciliar era in a way his predecessors were not.
The change of the liturgy to the vernacular was one of the council’s greatest changes. Pope Benedict could be the last pontiff with significant experience of the Tridentine Latin Mass as the ordinary form of the Catholic liturgy. The cultural and historical resonances of daily Latin prayer will likely be less of a force in the next papacy.
In Europe and to a lesser extent the U.S., the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was at times a story of secularization, subversion and diffidence. But in other parts of the world, the council often inspired amazing growth in Christian faith.
The Baby Boomers spent their formative years the vast cultural and technological upheavals of the mid-20th century: the threat of atomic warfare; the rise of television and mass entertainment; space flight; the discovery of DNA; the push for racial equality; feminism; the eradication of polio and other communicable diseases; the sexual revolution; and communist domination of Eastern Europe.
Whatever will God do with a Baby Boomer Pope?
We’ll find out soon enough.