Sunday, October 26, 2003

Virtually the entire College of Cardinals was at the Vatican last week celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s election and, some say, having a dry run for when they will meet again to elect his successor.

“It was like the Oscars,” said Raymond Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, who attended the event. “People were not waiting to get the Academy Award but the white biretta to the pontificate.”

Custom forbids cardinals from saying they want to become pope.

“It’s really frowned upon to get caught campaigning,” Mr. Flynn said. “If you were caught, it’d be a national scandal. But they build friendships and relationships; they have dinner with somebody and all but ask for their support.”

The addition of 30 cardinals has increased the college to 195 members, 135 of them of the age (younger than 80) to vote for the next pope. Many of the cardinals barely know of one another.

“It used to be cardinals from four or five countries in the college, a lot of them Italians who knew each other,” Mr. Flynn said. “But now it’s more like 20 countries. So most of the names who you hear bandied about are names surfacing in the Italian press, and everyone picks up on what they say.”

The pope’s health continues to decline. On Friday, he canceled his annual Mass with university students in St. Peter’s Basilica. Tuesday, during a ceremony in which he elevated 31 archbishops to cardinal, he was unable to summon the strength to crown each man with a red biretta. Because of his Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative affliction that causes him to slur his speech, an aide reads his sermons aloud.

“Obviously, there is a great deal of conversation among [the cardinals] as to what are the big-picture, front-burner issues facing the church, what profile of a man, of a future pope, is necessary to confront those issues,” John Allen, author of “Conclave,” a book about papal succession, told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Whenever John Paul dies, his funeral and conclave to elect his successor will be a top news event. For the past several years, TV networks have bid huge sums of money for prime views of St. Peter’s on the roofs of nearby homes or hotels. Vatican watchers have signed lucrative contracts to provide hours of commentary, as well as books on the new pope that must be turned around in a matter of weeks.

Several names have been mentioned, although much depends on whether the Italians will insist on regaining the throne of Peter. The Italians proposed Pope John Paul I for the job, but when he died a few weeks after taking office, their short list was exhausted. That gave other cardinals the opening they needed to elect Karol Joseph Wojtyla of Poland on the eighth ballot as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

The top Italian contender is the archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi, 69, head of the world’s largest Catholic archdiocese and a reputable moral theologian who gets along well with liberal and conservative Catholics.

But the Italian representation in the College of Cardinals is at 17 percent, the lowest ever. John Paul has increased the percentage of cardinals from Eastern Europe and has raised the percentage of Third World cardinals to 38 percent.

If the College looks outside Europe for its next pope, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, 70, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, is considered a top candidate.

Because of his age, an Arinze pontificate likely would be much shorter than John Paul’s. Catholicism is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Cardinal Arinze would be the first African pope in 1,500 years, since the death of Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D.

As president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue since 1984 and thus the fourth most senior Vatican official, Cardinal Arinze has experience dealing with Muslims, a must for any future pope.

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