Vatican watchers speculate about who will be next pope

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000

VATICAN CITY -- Now that celebrations for Pope John Paul II's landmark 80th birthday are over, Vatican watchers have turned to that perennial guessing game: Who will succeed him?

Will the next pope be an Italian, after a historic Polish pause, or might the electors make history again by choosing a prelate from the developing world? Will they seek to make the next one a ''short'' papacy -- or again opt for someone young by papal standards?

In the eyes of some, naming an Italian would represent ''a return to normalcy'' after such an event-filled pontificate, said Vittorio Messori, an Italian who collaborated with John Paul on his book ''Crossing the Threshold of Hope.''

The pope has reached what he calls his ''twilight years,'' and in the 22nd year of his papacy, he has reached the age -- 80 -- when cardinals are barred by church law from casting votes in conclaves to elect a new pope.

He is also frail, with his suffering clear to any observer: Tremors in his hands and slurred speech, symptoms of Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder, and a shuffling gait dating to hip-replacement surgery six years ago.

But he's also pushing ahead with his agenda during the Holy Year, with such audacious acts as asking forgiveness for the sins of Roman Catholics and praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall as part of efforts for reconciliation with Jews.

What makes the guessing game even more difficult is that John Paul has already outlived many cardinals once seen as ''papabile,'' and Vatican officials have brushed aside speculation that the pope's ailments may force him to resign soon.

Rumors had swirled over appointments to such important posts as the archbishop of Westminster, succeeding the late Cardinal Basil Hume, and archbishop of New York, succeeding the late Cardinal John O'Connor.

With those appointments decided, the gossip has turned to naming cardinals. ''All you hear is talk about cardinals and when they may be named,'' said Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston after a recent visit to Vatican offices.

In fact, the number of cardinals under 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave has dwindled to 100 from the 120 maximum allowed, meaning John Paul can name as many as 20 more cardinal-electors -- and potential papal candidates themselves. He is expected to do so by the fall.

It's not that cardinals exactly lobby. They say their vote is guided by the Holy Spirit, although they clearly had politics in mind in 1978 when they elected the Polish John Paul in a stunning challenge to his country's communist rulers.

Some have taken highly visible roles. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a 77-year-old Frenchman, heads the Vatican's Holy Year Committee, travels with the pope and meets often with the media. But some say he's too old and too liberal.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who heads the Italian Bishops Conference, is another prominent figure. He spent several weeks in the United States last year to bone up on English, considered important, particularly in light of the multilingual John Paul.

Other Italians mentioned are Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Genoa, and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan.

Martini would be the first Jesuit pope and a choice of many liberal Catholics, with his veiled calls for change in the church under the conservative John Paul.

He raised eyebrows at the Vatican last year when he suggested that the church needs to re-examine its stance on sexual issues and the reason for the shortage of priests, which some blame on mandatory celibacy.

A powerful choice would be Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who heads the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue. He would be the first black pope in modern times and send a message of the church's interest in the developing world.

Two Latin Americans have also been mentioned: Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, who helped prepare the pope's historic visit to Cuba in January 1998; and Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico, although at 57, he is considered young.

Other possible candidates include Miloslav Vlk of the Czech Republic and Godfried Danneels of Belgium.

The Italians lost the papacy after 455 years and are itching to get it back, although there is no sign they have rallied around a single candidate.

Some see a return to an Italian as attractive.

''They are not nationalistic minded, they are open to all kinds of people,'' said Erich Leitenberger, an Austrian church expert and chief editor of Kathpress, a Catholic news service.

He quickly added that he considered it premature to discuss succession.

''He's old, he's sick, but he has shown us he is at the height of his powers,'' Leitenberger said of John Paul.

John Paul has been such a public figure in the world -- visiting more than 100 countries -- that his successor could seek a more subdued role.

''We may need some period to absorb the extraordinary message this pope has given,'' said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, head of the Vatican's missionary news service.

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