For more than half a century, that has been a continuing question for the Roman Catholic Church as one dramatic moment succeeded another, from the bright promise of Vatican II to the rock-star excitement of the globe-trotting Pope John Paul II to the agony of sex-abuse scandals. And now, a papal resignation, something not seen in nearly six centuries - a long time even by Catholic standards.
The drama of the modern Catholic Church continues Thursday as Pope Benedict XVI lays down his papacy at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. in Philadelphia) and the chair of Peter becomes vacant until white smoke puffs out of the Sistine Chapel a few weeks later to announce in charming anachronism the election of a new pope for a digital age.
What does it take to lead a church with more than a billion members around the world?
"Personally, I think the new pope will need the zeal of a missionary and the administrative skills of a strong CEO," says Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
"As Catholics, we need to wake up and live what we claim to believe," he wrote via e-mail. "So much of Church life needs to be renewed and reformed from the roots up - and I don't mean tweaking structures or abandoning what the Church knows to be true from her experience, her understanding of the human person and above all from the Word of God. We need to be re-evangelized and reconverted so that our faith is vivid and consuming, and the most important thing in our lives."
But Chaput will not take part in the conclave that will select a new pope next month. That honor will go to his predecessor, Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, 77, who remains eligible to vote in papal elections until he turns 80.
Rigali is one of 117 cardinals who will gather at the Vatican, on a date in March still to be determined, to invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit and choose a new pope.
It's an election without overt campaigning, without opinion polls, but a political process, nevertheless. "Wherever two or three are gathered together, there's a political dynamic," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (1996).
Whoever wins will need a supermajority: two-thirds of the votes.
Rigali, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., said at a news conference Feb. 11, the day Benedict announced his resignation, that he and his fellow cardinals were "looking for an awful lot. The ideal candidate would have everything, but he also remains human, so he's not going to have everything."
The new pope needs to be compassionate, according to Rigali. He also needs some facility with foreign languages, since he is the pastor of the whole church. "You know by intuition what you need, and then you try and get the man that has the best combination possible and still remain human, so, you're not going to get anybody perfect," the cardinal said.
A modern pope must be able to travel and to govern, says Rocco Palmo, author of the Philadelphia-based Catholic insider blog Whispers in the Loggia.
Whoever the new pope is, his travels may well include a visit to Philadelphia for the 2015 World Family Day celebration that Benedict had said he would attend. "We hope and pray [the new pope will visit]," Chaput says. "The Holy Father has typically attended these World Family meetings in the past."
One of the most important changes in the papacy may be how the new pope connects to the world "outside the bubble of the Apostolic Palace," Palmo says. "There is going to be for the first time in the Catholic Church, the world's great bastion of tradition, a pope with a computer on his desk and a smartphone in his pocket. . . . He'll be informed without a filter . . . and that visibly will impact how he governs."
The new pope will face an array of issues, including the lingering effects of the clergy sex-abuse scandals in the United States and Europe. "We'd like to have a pope who would say unambiguously that any crimes of child sex abuse must be reported to civil authorities," said Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, an online archive of clergy sex-abuse cases established by lay Catholics.
Because all the cardinal electors were appointed by Benedict or John Paul II, the new pope is unlikely to change church teaching on issues such as ordination of women. "There's no way someone who's in favor of women's ordination could sneak into the College of Cardinals," Reese says. "The only way we could see significant change would be to elect someone who had been supporting [the old teaching] out of loyalty [rather than conviction]. That's very unlikely."
Under current rules, the conclave cannot begin until March 15, but there has been speculation that Benedict will change the rules so that it can begin earlier.
Reese says that the longer the conclave is delayed, the less likely it is to be influenced by the cardinals who make up the Vatican bureaucracy. Cardinals from around the world will have a chance to talk and reach consensus on two or three strong candidates. "Then the question is who can get two-thirds," Reese says.
The cardinals will sequester themselves in the Vatican as they make their choice, shut off from the rest of the world. The last time anyone outside a conclave influenced its outcome was 1903, when the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, through a Polish cardinal, vetoed the candidacy of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla to succeed Pope Leo XIII. The cardinals went along with the emperor's veto and instead elected Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, who went on to sainthood as Pope Pius X and as pope promptly banned, under pain of excommunication, any attempt to veto a papal candidate.
Asked whether any of the cardinals from the United States had solicited the views of other members of the hierarchy in the United States or the clergy or laity about the election, Chaput replied: "Over time, any good leader solicits and listens to good advice from different sources. The American cardinals are already very well informed about the concerns of their clergy and people."
Others think all Catholics should have a say in who runs the church. "I should be involved in some substantive way in decisions affecting my life," says Leonard Swidler, professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University. "If we are adults, then we should participate in decisions that substantively affect our lives."
Who will the next pope be?
The Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a Jesuit priest who teaches religious history at the University of Virginia and has studied the papacy, says he "wouldn't be surprised if they went for a Latin American this time," specifically Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 39 percent of the world's Catholics, according to a recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Would Chaput care to predict the winner? The former archbishop of Denver demurred, claiming not to be much of a prognosticator: "I thought I'd retire in Denver, so you may want to rethink that question."