As the world prayed and kept vigil, Pope John Paul II (Karol Jozef Wojtyla) died at the Vatican the night of April 2, 2005. The pope's death marked the end of an extraordinary papacy. No pope in history had been such a public figure, had traveled so extensively, had written so much, or had canonized so many saints (more than all his predecessors put together!). No pope in history had acted so dramatically and symbolically-praying with leaders of other religions at Assisi, praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, asking pardon for the church's many mistakes in the past, meeting with and forgiving his would-be assassin, and sitting beside the archbishop of Canterbury in St. Peter's Basilica on an identical throne.
John Paul's quarter-century as "servant of the servants of God" set his church on a course that will be difficult to change. Today's Roman Catholic Church is still hesitant in regard to women's full and equal participation at all levels, still determined to follow the traditional strictures regarding contraception, still upholding the right to life of both the unborn and convicted criminals, and has taken cautious and even condemnatory positions on the burning questions of medical ethics. John Paul II presided over a church whose center of gravity was shifting from Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. His appointments to the Roman curia and the episcopacy, as well as the destinations of his many "pilgrimages," reflected this crucial demographic change.
The church shaped by John Paul II is committed to the world's poor, to the establishment of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, to inculturation, to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue (despite some vacillations in documents like Dominus Iesus), and to continuing Jesus' mission among all peoples and to the ends of the earth. This commitment was expressed with particular force by the pope himself in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris missio, which was explicitly written to encourage the church's missionary activity among peoples who have not yet come to believe in Christ.
While recognizing the possibility of salvation outside explicit Christian faith, the pope insisted nevertheless that "no one . . . can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit" (par. 5). While the pope spoke of mission as a "single but complex reality," including witness, justice, dialogue, and inculturation as constitutive elements, he also spoke of explicit proclamation as mission's "permanent priority" (par. 44). This inclusive yet distinctly Christocentric and Trinitarian mission theology will characterize the discussions of missiologists well into this present century. Also central to John Paul's missionary agenda was his articulation of a "new evangelization" among cultures and peoples who, though baptized or living in traditionally Christian milieus, have lost a sense of faith's importance in their lives.
Roman Catholics are secure in their belief that the Holy Spirit will entrust the church to a worthy successor. Nevertheless they, along with much of the world, mourn the passing of a charismatic and, indeed, holy man.
On April 19,2005, after only four ballots in conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the age of seventy-eight was elected bishop of Rome, taking the name "Benedict XVI. …