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A younger pope. A pope from a third-world country. A pope who would give women a stronger voice — and possibly ordain them.

If there were a suggestion box outside the Sistine Chapel, those might be some of the ideas offered by Seattle-area high-school and college students to cardinals who on Tuesday will open a conclave to select the next pope.

The Seattle Times asked a sampling of student leaders and campus journalists at Jesuit-run Seattle University and at Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish what they’d look for in the next spiritual leader of an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

Each of the students has been following the selection process, and several said they’d like to see the cardinals break with tradition — and pick a pope from somewhere other than Europe.

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“I think the image of a non-Caucasian pope would be a powerful one,” said Sara Bernard-Hoverstad, 20, a junior at Seattle U. and a student campus minister.

Such a move, she said, would reflect the diversity in the church and the fact that it has been growing in South America and Africa.

Connecting with young people, who represent the future of the Roman Catholic Church, is a challenge for the church as the cardinals select a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI, who retired at 85 for health reasons.

In the U.S. in particular, younger Americans are less likely than older ones to approve of church leadership.

In a recent New York Times / CBS News poll of American Catholics, 50 percent of respondents 65 and older had a favorable view of Pope Benedict XVI, an opinion shared by just 33 percent of those between 18 and 44.

It’s not that the young people disapproved of the pope. The bulk of them said they had no opinion or not enough information.

Another SU student, Adrian Munger, 22, said he’s of two minds as the selection process moves forward.

“There’s a sense, an awareness that this could be a huge turning point in Catholic history in terms of globalization and modernization,” said Munger, opinion and sports editor of The Spectator campus newspaper.

On the other hand, he feels that many of the cardinals making the decision are grounded in traditional church practices and may not be open to change.

At Eastside Catholic School, junior Maggie
McKay, 16, knows one thing she’d like in a pope: “ What would be nice is maybe someone a little younger … a pope that could stick around a little longer.”

McKay, who has been an editor on the school newspaper, The Insider, would like to see a pope who would ordain women, particularly with priests in short supply.

And she thinks it would be good for the church “to get a woman’s take on what should be going on.”

Another Eastside student, Caitlin Murphy, 18, said it’s not important to her where the pope comes from, but what he is able to do.

“As long as it’s somebody who could stand up, especially with all the scandals there have been with the church … Somebody who could kind of pull everybody together.”

Murphy, who writes for the campus paper, said sometimes news media make it appear there’s a single Catholic viewpoint on issues, when in real life, Catholics differ over many issues.

She, for example, has no objection to gay marriage, a position counter to church teachings, but she agrees with the church’s strong objections to abortion.

Just how important is the pope?

Bradley Strode, 16, Eastside’s junior-class president, said his thinking on that was sharpened last year when his family visited Rome and saw Pope Benedict XVI lead a prayer service.

In the enthusiastic crowd that jammed St. Peter’s Square, Strode saw many skin shades and ethnicities.

“It shows that faith, regardless of where you’re from, is still strong and it can be strong regardless of your socio-economic background or nationality … and it kind of all revolves around the pope.”

He called the visit “a faith-cementing experience.”

At Seattle University, although it is a Catholic school, only about a third of the students are Catholic.

Jacqueline Shrader, 22, a senior majoring in theology and religious studies, works with the campus ministry, a role that puts her in touch with the connection between students and their faith.

In a pope, she said, “I look for openness and listening and someone who is willing to own up to the truth that the world presents right now.” That could mean addressing worldwide poverty — its causes and effects.

Another Seattle U. student, Alexander Kwok, 22, is marking just one year as a Catholic. Although his mother is Catholic, she wanted her children to make their own decision about which church to join.

When he opted to be baptized last Easter, Kwok said, it was largely due to two issues: “the Catholic social teaching of concern for the poor” and its openness to ideas from other faiths. He’d like to see the new pope make those top priorities.

Kwok serves on a university board that helps handle conflicts and misconduct, and is in a choir that sings at Sunday evening Mass.

On a day-to-day basis, he said, the clergy and the Catholic students he interacts with shape his sense of the church more than the pope does.

Bernard-Hoverstad, the SU student who said a nonwhite pope would send an important message, said she felt in tune with the papacy of Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005.

“I think (Pope) Benedict kind of went back to a traditional line of thought, and especially for people my age it’s kind of important to see that the church is moving … with modernity,” she said.

To her, that could mean ordaining women, acceptance of birth control and greater inclusion of “people who are not heterosexual.”

Bernard-Hoverstad would describe most of the Catholics she encounters at Seattle U. as liberal, but she said there are conservative Catholics on campus, too, and she hopes her campus ministry encourages conversation between the two groups.

Munger would like the pope to examine questions such as whether the church’s traditional stance against birth control has contributed to the spread of AIDS in underdeveloped counties.

He wants the church to focus on action, not ritual. “It’s got to be about the people,” he said, “not the words that are said in a building.”

Each of the students said they’ll be eager to learn about the man eventually chosen to head the church.

“When Pope Benedict was elected I didn’t really pay attention because I was a young kid and it didn’t really have any resonance with me,” said Strode at Eastside Catholic.

“But now as a confirmed Catholic, it means more to me that a pope is going to be elected that will probably serve for a large portion of my life.”

Jack Broom:

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this article.

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