Only about 25 percent of Catholics today live in the Church’s traditional homeland of Europe, with most growth in Africa and Asia. How much should the Church in these areas remain loyal to European modes of worship and practice? When does adaptation to local culture become theologically problematic?

Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in the traditional stronghold of Latin America is declining as believers defect to Protestant churches, especially Pentecostal or “charismatic” movements that emphasize dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, such as divine healing, speaking in tongues, and exorcism.

The procedure for electing the bishop of Rome—that is, the Pope—may not have seemed the most promising way to find a leader who could confront all these problems. Its basic features reflect the nature of the papacy in the Middle Ages, when the Pope was not only a spiritual leader, but also the ruler of his own kingdom (the Papal States) with a vast fortune in land, buildings, art, and cash.

The electors are cardinals, known as “princes of the Church,” all appointed by the Pope. Today nearly all the cardinals are or have been bishops or archbishops (leaders of Catholics in a specific city or region), but this is not a requirement to be a cardinal. The renowned American theologian Avery Dulles is a recent example of a cardinal who was not a bishop.

Cardinals were originally clergy from Rome set aside to assist the Pope. During the Middle Ages, however, cardinals came to be seen as the equivalent of royal princes in hereditary monarchies. Indeed, the election of a monarch by a small group of “princes” resembles how the Holy Roman Emperor was chosen in the medieval and early modern periods.

Before the eleventh century the Pope, as bishop of Rome, was elected much as other bishops were, in a process that involved local clergy, influential lay people, and other bishops. However, the extraordinary power of the Roman bishop enticed dying popes, politicians (such as the Holy Roman Emperor), and wealthy Italian families to manipulate the process in favor of their favorite candidates. Bribery and violence were common.

Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061) reduced the influence of politicians and lay people by restricting the process to certain clergy, with the cardinals as the final electors. Reforms in subsequent centuries eventually placed the power of election completely in the hands of the cardinals.

As the world just witnessed, the cardinals (now only those under the age of 80) meet in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel. They are shut off completely from the rest of humanity, without communication to or from outsiders—except for the black or white smoke that signals whether a Pope has been elected. This extreme secrecy reflects continued concern about the influence of political and secular people on the deliberations of the electors.

The seclusion of the conclave protects the cardinals from such external influence, and it encourages them not to take too long to reach the two-thirds majority required for election. A senior cardinal reveals the name of the elected candidate to the waiting crowd outside the Basilica of St. Peter in Latin: “Habemus Papam!” (“We have a Pope!”)

The election of a Pope is overtly political, with relatively frank discussions of leading candidates before the conclave begins. At the same time, Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the process. For believers there is no real contradiction between these two statements. To their minds, God works through human institutions like the Church and through fallen human beings.

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Begoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, suggests that the cardinal electors were eager to meet the challenges of an ever more diverse and global Church. Even though more than half the cardinals in the conclave came from Europe, they chose the first Pope from the southern hemisphere and from the Americas.

The German Benedict XVI had made “re-evangelization” of an increasingly secular Europe his major theme, but the sexual abuse scandal and his failure to get firm control of the Vatican bureaucracy (the Curia) undermined this project. The cardinals may have reasoned that revitalization of the Church in areas like Europe may require a Pope who comes from the southern world, where the Church is growing despite competition, and who is experienced with the energy of both Pentecostalism and secularism (evident in his native Argentina).

Moreover, as an outsider to the often clubby world of the Vatican and European Christianity, he may be able to undertake the serious reform of the bureaucracy and the clerical ranks that Benedict did not achieve.

The Global Future of Christianity

In late 2012 and early 2013 the world saw three major Christian communities choose their spiritual leaders in strikingly different ways. Each of these communities has a long history, and the differing ways that they select their leaders reflect that history and each church’s unique social and religious circumstances.

We have seen that two periods of intense debate and division (in the fifth and sixteenth centuries) resulted in these varied forms of Christianity. As different as they are, however, these churches and their new leaders all face the challenges that contemporary globalization poses to Christianity.

Christianity is now a religion primarily of the southern hemisphere, where political movements like the Arab Spring and religious movements like Pentecostalism are unsettling longstanding patterns of religious life.

It may be that we are in the midst of a third great period of realignment, in which Christians will divide and coalesce over social and political issues like gender and sexuality and over religious practices like spiritual healing and exorcism.

Since the sixteenth century Christians have seen themselves as grouped into three major traditions: Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, with further divisions within these (“Coptic Orthodox,” “Russian Orthodox,” “Methodist,” “Presbyterian,” etc.).

But these identities, based on nationality and/or doctrinal commitments, seem today increasingly less significant than, say, shared commitments on matters like gay marriage and abortion or shared experiences of spiritual gifts. Moreover, Pentecostalism does not fit easily into any of these three broad categories and perhaps represents a new, fourth major Christian tradition.

Such longstanding Christian identities as the Roman Catholic Church or the Lutherans or the Greek Orthodox are not going away, even if some of them (like the Anglican Communion) are in danger of further division. They are, however, becoming less important to many Christians.

In today’s global environment, shared political views, agreement on sexual ethics, and participation in charismatic revivals tie many believers together more strongly than ethnic origin or doctrines like the nature(s) of Christ.

Innovative Christian leaders are forming new networks—media groups, political advocacy organizations, charismatic healing movements, and the like—that cross geographical and denominational boundaries and that compete with older churches for the time, energy, and money of believers.

Pope Tawadros, Archbishop Justin Welby, and Pope Francis will have crucial roles to play in whether and how their traditional churches remain relevant in the emerging global Christianity.