Why The Next Pope May Be A Surprise

As Pope John Paul II continues his recovery from a tracheotomy in Rome's Gemelli hospital, the Vatican says His Holiness will be well enough by Easter to give the traditional blessing. But more than ever the Polish pontiff's mortality is a topic of discussion in Vatican and church circles. That discussion, of course, leads to the next question: Who will succeed John Paul II?

The College of Cardinals will select a Pope when John Paul passes on. But when the time comes for a conclave to anoint a new pontiff to lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, John Paul's influence will still be considerable. He has appointed 115 of the 120 cardinals eligible to elect the next Pope, all with an eye to enforcing his conservative stance on such issues as abortion, the role of women in the church, homosexuality, and bioethics. Meanwhile, liberals such as Cardinal Martini of Milan have entered mandatory retirement, strengthening the hand of the conservatives.

Far-Flung Cardinals

John Paul has also recruited cardinals from the poor but vibrant southern rim of Catholicism and from regions hardly ever represented before. New cardinals hail from as far away as Cameroon, Syria, and the Dominican Republic. "He has made the College more reflective of the global reality of the Church," says Harold W. Attridge, dean of the Yale Divinity School.

This widening of the ranks complicates the task of figuring out who the next Pope will be. "John Paul has conducted three planetary battles," says Orazio Petrosillo, a Vatican commentator: "Breaking down the wall between East and West, reducing the gap between North and South, and curbing the hostility between Christianity and Islam." If the college wants to focus on the North-South divide, it could select one of the so-called southern cardinals.

These are prelates from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Papabili -- papal prospects -- from this group include Nigeria's Francis Arinze, a conservative; Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, a Honduran known for his work with the poor; and India's Ivan Dias, a friend of Mother Teresa. The selection of Arinze as the first African Pope since Gelasius I, who died in the year 496, would certainly put the issue of poverty at the top of the agenda.

Big Shoes to Fill

The question is whether the College will go that far. Some observers think the cardinals want a transitional Pope, i.e. one older than 75 who will not reign for long. In that scenario, the next Pope could be Joseph Ratzinger, a German who has been John Paul's enforcer on Church doctrine. During his short rule, Ratzinger, 78, would keep the Church focused on social conservatism.

The final unknown is the role of the Italian cardinals. They still control 38 seats in the College and may want one of their own. A favorite of this camp is Dionigi Tettamanzi, Cardinal of Milan. Known for his diplomatic skills, he has his conservative credentials in order. He's close to Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic group, and was a ghostwriter of John Paul's encyclical on bioethics.

Do any of these papabili have the ability to fill John Paul's shoes? John Paul's role in the battle against communism gave him a place in history most other popes never attained. But some of the tasks pursued by the Vatican -- especially the struggle to elevate the world's poor -- still leave room for dramatic action.

By Maureen Kline in Milan

Edited by Christopher Power

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