Religion

GOD’S NEXT SERVANT

Pope John Paul Il is frail and ailing. Who will be the next person to head the Roman Catholic Church?

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS July 29 2002
Religion

GOD’S NEXT SERVANT

Pope John Paul Il is frail and ailing. Who will be the next person to head the Roman Catholic Church?

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS July 29 2002

GOD’S NEXT SERVANT

Religion

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS

Pope John Paul Il is frail and ailing. Who will be the next person to head the Roman Catholic Church?

IT WAS A BUSY SUNDAY even by papal standards. On June 16, in the presence of more than 300,000 people in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, John Paul II, Servant of the Servants of God, Primate of Italy and Patriarch of the West, presided at the canonization or “sainting” ceremony of the hugely popular Capuchin friar, Padre Pio

da Pietrelcina. Large screens were set up along the Via della Conciliazione—the impressive artery built by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini—so that the faithful could watch the ceremony. They witnessed the love the Pope has for Padre Pio, who died in 1968, but they could also see a man crippled by pain and frustrated by the immo-

bility brought on by Parkinson’s disease.

With every display of the 82-year-old pontiff’s increasing ill health, speculation increases about how much longer he can perform his duties, which include his weeklong trip, beginning on July 23, to Canada to attend World Youth Day festivities in Toronto. And as the debate over his health grows, so does the intrigue surrounding the politics of succession, which will eventually culminate with the cardinals who are eligible to vote (those under 80 years of age) gathering in a conclave to elect a new pontiff. The cardinals won’t tip their hands as to whom they are supporting. That leaves it to Vatican experts—Vaticanologists —to predict who the new pope might be, and they are now working overtime.

Among them is Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the respected British Catholic weekly The Tablet. Mickens is a former student of the Pontifical Gregorian University—the premier institution of its kind in Rome—and he spent a decade as a correspondent for Vatican Radio. Among the current crop of papabile—those who are “popeable”—Mickens believes the leading candidates are Walter Kasper, 69, former bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and now Rome’s chief ecumenist and a leading theologian; Godfried Danneels, 69, the primate of Belgium and an articulate intellectual; and Roger Etchegaray, 79, a poised French cardinal with a strong record of pastoral and diplomatic achievements, and close ties to John Paul.

Kasper’s strong ecumenical credentials and willingness to debate theological issues in public have raised his profile and made him a fresh and open presence in the corridors of the Vatican. For months he has debated a controversial issue—giving more power to local dioceses—candidly in the press with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Supreme Congregation, once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition and now functioning under the less intimidating moniker of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Danneels has held several important positions in the Church and is also outspoken. In fact, 18 months ago, he attracted international attention when he told a meeting of Roman Catholic university and

college presidents in Washington that there were no serious intellectuals among the more than 300 bishops in the United States. The obvious conclusion: John Paul’s penchant for appointing canon lawyers, seminary rectors and chancery officials to positions of pastoral stewardship was exacting a heavy price on the Church.

As the Pope’s troubleshooter, Etchegaray has been dispatched to handle delicate but incendiary political and religious issues all over the world, including the standoff between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in May. His age does seriously complicate his eligibility, however, although the next pope is likely to be considerably older than 58, the age John Paul was at the time of his election in October, 1978.

If the three have one drawback, it is that they are European. Many observers of the Vatican scene and the politics of papal election point to the declining demographics of Catholic Europe and the ascendancy of the Third World. John Paul (Karol Wojtyla) was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years, and the cardinals may think it time to move beyond the boundaries of Europe in their search.

Another Vatican specialist, John L. Allen Jr., author of Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election, has 20 front-runners on his short list. According to Allen, who is also Vatican

correspondent for the Kansas City-based progressive weekly the National Catholic Reporter, Giovanni Battista Cardinal Re, 68, of Italy, and Claudio Hummes, 67, Cardinal Archbishop of Säo Paulo, Brazil, are definite contenders, along with the formidable Danneels of Brussels.

Re was for many years the sostituto— substitute—the official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State with immediate responsibility for the day-to-day management of general affairs, and he is the consummate insider. If the cardinals are looking for a bureaucrat perfectly at home with the ways of Vatican governance and diplomacy, Re is their man.

Hummes, head of what is possibly the most populist Catholic diocese in Latin America, is the controversial successor of the immensely popular Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, a mythic figure who battled not only with the generals of the Brazilian dictatorship between 1964 and 1985, but also Rome. Since Arns’s retirement in 1996, Hummes has walked a tightrope, balancing between the Vatican’s wish that he nullify radical tendencies in the Brazilian Church, and his own sympathy for the impoverished masses.

Other non-European cardinals who could emerge as the next pope include Norberto Rivera Carrera, 60, of Mexico (conservative doctrinally but a social critic who is keen on political and economic reform); Oscar Andrés Rodriguez

Maradiaga, 59, of Honduras (media savvy, telegenic and the favourite of Latin American prelates); Nicolas de Jesús Lopez Rodriguez, 65, of the Dominican Republic (much favoured by some members of the papal household); Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, 73 (responsible for the important Congregation for the Clergy, he has the ear of the pontiff); and Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, 65, of Cuba (a skilful diplomat and the only papal possibility with a Canadian connection—a Montreal education).

No serious contenders have emerged from the United States or Canada. There was a flurry of interest in the prospects of Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, 66, of Montreal a few years ago; he has not resurfaced on anyone’s list since. But as Allen knows, the sometimes muddy, misty and mangled world that is the Vatican can be very political indeed, and sometimes with few certainties. Which leads to the old saying—“he who enters the conclave a pope, exits a cardinal.” IT]

Michael W. Higgins, a Vatican affairs commentator and co-author of Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads, is also president of St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo, Ont.