In 1978, when the College of Cardinals elected Poland's Karol Józef Wojtya, my Sicilian-born father shook his head in disbelief. Why, he wondered, would the Roman Catholic Church willingly give up the papacy, its only position of global authority? Then, as now, Italians represented the College of Cardinals' largest voting block.
By the time Pope John Paul II had passed away, so had my father. He didn't live to see the day when Germany's Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, more commonly known as Pope Benedict XVI, replaced John Paul II. I can't imagine that my father's reaction would have been different.
After Benedict XVI retired, some buzz around Rome indicated that many Catholics thought that a 35-year hiatus without an Italian pope was long enough. The betting favorite — and yes, there are posted odds on Vatican elections at a site called PaddyPower.com — was Milan's Archbishop Angelo Scola. The next six favorites after Scola were from Brazil, Ghana, Canada, the United States, Italy again, and Austria.
But for those who yearned to return an Italian to the Vatican, their hopes were dashed when Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio, despite not appearing among any favorites list, ascended to the papacy.
As it turned out, news reports indicated that Italians are largely indifferent to who becomes pope. When interviewed, many in the Vatican audience expressed indifference to the pope's nationality. Some analysts attribute Italian Catholics' current mood to an anti-establishment sentiment that in part is attributable to the seemingly endless pedophilia scandals.
While Pope Francis' election will dominate the world news for days to come, the question remains: "Is the 21st Century Roman Catholic Church relevant?"
The immediate reaction after electing a pope is similar to electing a new president. The new leaders generate excitement among the faithful. Every gesture they make or word that they utter is interpreted as conveying a hopeful, inspiring message. Promises are made but mostly lelft unfulfilled. The honeymoon doesn't last long.
I'm among the hopeful. My father was a baptized Catholic at birth. My mother, a Presbyterian, converted after the third of her three children was born. I embraced my new religion, attended Catholic schools and served as an altar boy.
But, like many Catholics, as an adolescent and into adulthood, I drifted away. By the time I reached Lodi in the late 1980s, rumors about the priests' scandals were beginning to leak out. Soon thereafter, rumors became confirmed fact. At the center was then-Bishop of Stockton Roger Mahony.
I'm trying to reconcile my deep disappointment with the comfort my early Catholic upbringing brought me. These days, I'm attending the resplendent Latin Mass at Pittsburgh's Saint Boniface Church.
But like more than half of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, I'd like to see major changes in the church before I could fully return to the fold. I'm among the three-quarters of Catholics who would like birth control to be considered morally acceptable. Like the majority, I favor ending celibacy for priests. Many of the 12 Apostles were married, including St. Peter and St. Paul. Finally, the argument that Jesus didn't ordain women as priests doesn't convince me that the church should change that rule posthaste.
Pope Francis is 76, an old man. According to the 2010 United Nations' World Population Prospects, the average Argentinian male's life expectancy is 71. If Pope Francis is planning innovations, the sooner he starts, the better. Unfortunately, under Pope Francis, I don't expect any substantive changes in the Roman Catholic Church.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.