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By Monsignor Robert K. Golombek

At this writing, the cardinals are in conclave and the Catholic Church is choosing a new leader, a new pope. This will be a momentous occasion for the 1.1 billion Catholics throughout the world.

Ever since Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication, I have been praying each day for the Holy Spirit to guide the electors to select a man who will restore the church model Christ left us – a Catholic Church poor and humble in service to all in need and led by a truly Christ-like man, also poor and humble.

During the past 48 years in my ministry as priest and pastor, I have become aware that the church needs to look in new directions. A church clinging to the ways of the past will never solve the challenges we face today. Christ looked forward; he did not look backward. Nostalgia will not fill the empty pews of our churches.

Many ask why these pews are vacant. It is obvious we have strayed from the archetype specified by Christ for leadership. Instead, in a world yearning for true shepherds, we value only those who are scholars and theologians.

The first shepherds of the church, however, were guided not by academics but by the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the church by Christ. They taught Christ’s way as living examples of all Christ was and all that he calls us to be. It was Christ who revealed: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest.”

As a pastor, I was privileged to establish and to minister in a soup kitchen for the poor and a clinic for the elderly and infirm – here I encountered the living Christ in those I served. As those ministries expanded, so did attendance and participation in church services and ministries that extended Christ’s acceptance and charity to all in need.

To witness Christ in others and to be Christ for others is what I pray the next pope will be and will do. I pray for a pope who will teach eloquently not through words delivered from a regal throne but teach by his example lived, often without words. We cannot forget Christ’s invitation to the first apostles of the church: “Be not afraid” to pursue Christ’s example of poverty, love and simplicity. The apostles were inspirational “catchers of men” and women. And those touched by the apostles’ message embarked upon quests to serve others with Christ’s mercy and love.

We cannot look back. In many ways, our world is a dark place needing light. We require more women and men in the religious life who are not afraid, but are motivated to bring to others the radiance of the living Christ’s goodness so that others can pay it forward. Because the pope can inspire this, the church especially now needs a truly extraordinary leader.

Benedict sought a smaller and more obedient Catholic Church, which is not the answer. Most vital now is a vibrant and living church led by a humble and holy vicar of Christ, unafraid to look forward as Christ did. Christ’s command: “I will make you catchers of men,” and his exhortation: “Do not be afraid,” are as relevant today as they were when Christ uttered his invitation.

The time is now to leave behind the burdens of past ways and to freely walk the path he walked – one that will bring us all closer to God. Even though cardinals elect a pope, the people can pray and God will listen.

Monsignor Robert K. Golombek is pastor emeritus of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in the Town of Tonawanda.