Editor's note: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C. He participated in the 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI. Watch Cardinal McCarrick on The Situation Room today at 6 p.m. ET.
(CNN) -- The world is waiting on the next pope in more ways than one.
Everyone, including the College of Cardinals, is wondering who the next Bishop of Rome and leader of the world's billion Catholics will be. But the world is waiting in another, more urgent sense, because the pope isn't just a spiritual leader to Catholics. His work has a global dimension.
As has been true in the past, the next pope will have to provide a moral voice to a range of challenges.
An estimated 1.7 billion people live without adequate health care or decent living conditions and more than 1.3 billion live below the measure of extreme poverty. Some 870 million people are chronically malnourished. Jesus identified himself with the poor and the marginalized and all Christians have a responsibility to them. But the pope, as Servant of the Servants of God and Vicar of Christ on Earth, bears a special burden.
Currently 75% of the world's population faces growing threats to religious freedom, according to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The U.S. Confrence of Catholic Bishops says in a recent report that while many religious groups face persecution, Christians are harassed in 111 out of 193 countries. An estimated 150,000 Christians die each year because of their faith. Many others have had to leave their countries because of war, oppression or rapid political change. In Bethlehem, the Christian population has dropped from 80% to 28%.
The safety of the entire world is a concern with the rise of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring and the possible nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
The next pope will also face a changing church, which, while ever ancient, is ever new.
Two thirds of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The church is growing the fastest in Africa and Latin America. In the United States, 54% of Catholics born since 1982 are Hispanic. Also, an unprecedented 16% of the U.S. population claims no religious affiliation, a challenge to the faith that calls for urgent renewal.
This month in Rome, in view of all these many challenges and heartbreaks, the cardinals have the solemn responsibility to give the world a good shepherd who can guide them to the source of true hope and freedom, which is found in Jesus Christ.
This is why viewing the upcoming conclave as a popularity contest is to have everything backward. As with picking a pastor or a diocesan bishop, the starting point must be the needs of the people. In the case of the pope, that happens to be the entire world.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Theodore Edgar McCarrick.