Hidden Hopes of Being Pope


Roman Catholic cardinals fly a lot these days and land in the unlikeliest places.

Take Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Genoa, Italy. He strayed from his territory last month to promote ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox Christians in newly democratic Serbia.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, the Vatican official who oversees the clergy, turned up in New York in October, marveling before an assembly of Latino priests about the growing clout of Western Hemisphere Catholics within the church.

And what was Francis Arinze, the Nigerian cardinal who handles the Vatican’s relations with Islam, doing that month in Massachusetts? He led a well-publicized forum for theology majors and blessed the faithful during Mass at Jesuit-run Boston College.


With Pope John Paul II ailing and nearly 81, all three men are thought to aspire to his throne, but none will dare say so. As members of the College of Cardinals, the exclusive club that elects the pope from its own ranks to serve for life, they are inhibited by a 7th century code of silence on the topic of succession.

Instead, a subtle, undeclared campaign is underway within the elite of Catholicism’s divided flock to fill what John Paul has turned into the most visible and powerful pulpit on Earth. The field is wide open, with no apparent favorite among the 10 or more men believed to be jostling for the papacy.

On the lecture circuit and at Mass, in press interviews and private meetings with fellow cardinals, they aim for high profiles, good vibes and one-upmanship--but also the right dose of humility, to conceal any hint of ambition.

“Those who really desire to be pope, I don’t think they would be a good pope,” Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, another purported contender, said in an interview. “That is an impossible job. Those who see what the job is, I think they say to themselves, ‘Not me, Lord, not me.’ ”

Lowering his voice to a near-whisper, he added, “If your colleagues are asking you to do it, if they think you can do it . . . you have to respond yes.”

Speculative lists of papabili, Italian for “pope-ables,” have circulated among Vaticanologists and in the media since the mid-1990s, changing as the gossip does. The field expanded last month when John Paul named 44 new cardinals, who are being installed today in St. Peter’s Square.

John Paul has outlasted some of the early favorites, but talk of succession has intensified in the turn-of-millennium twilight of his pontificate. Vatican officials no longer deny that his holiness, shaky for years, has Parkinson’s disease. Breaking a taboo, two cardinals hinted last year that he might become the first pope since 1294 to abdicate.

Papal loyalists cringe at such speculation, sensing ill-disguised impatience to be done with John Paul’s 22-year-old reign. The pope has warned against “rivalry and careerism” in the Vatican hierarchy and mocked predictions of his looming death or retirement.


Noting that he has beatified Pope Pius IX, who reigned for one-third of the 19th century, John Paul was quoted last month in the Roman daily Il Messaggero as saying he hoped that Pius would return the favor and “help me reach the years of his pontificate.”

Still, today’s creation of scarlet-clad “princes of the church,” a ritual held roughly every three years and attended by the entire College of Cardinals, could well be John Paul’s last.

If that’s the case, the 265th pope will certainly be sitting in St. Peter’s Square today, somewhere in the newly expanded ranks of 184 cardinals from 67 countries.

Who could it be?


John Paul Has Named Nearly All the Electors

John Paul cannot designate a successor. But because he has appointed 125 of the 135 cardinal-electors--only those younger than 80 are eligible to vote--the next pope is sure to be a like-minded conservative on questions of doctrine and morals.

But painful divisions among Catholics over other issues of John Paul’s leadership are just as certain to echo inside the Sistine Chapel when the cardinal-electors someday hold their secret conclave. Should they pick another zealous centralizer, or a conciliator more willing to hear dissent and give leeway to local bishops? Another globe-trotting pastor, or a skillful CEO for the Vatican’s unruly bureaucrats? A bridge-builder to people of other faiths, or an evangelizer with a triumphal Catholic message?

Without uttering the words “conclave” or “next pope,” cardinals debate those questions quite openly, staking out positions that prompt others to list and judge them as papabili.


Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, for example, made a splash at a 1999 synod of European bishops by urging more “collegiality"--code for democracy--within the church, to help it resolve contentious questions about marriage, sexuality and the role of women in Catholic life.

Martini, the polyglot archbishop of Milan, is a towering figure in the church. But his long identification as the most liberal papabile has stirred a backlash: Martini’s speech “found no acceptance at all within the synod,” Cardinal Tettamanzi said in a widely reported put-down that went unanswered.

Tettamanzi, an affable, energetic moral theologian with conservative allies in the Vatican, has since emerged as Italy’s leading papabile, according to Italian reporters who cover the Holy See.

Not to be outflanked, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna weighed in last fall with the provocative idea that Italy should favor Catholic immigrants over those of other beliefs. It played well among cardinals uneasy with John Paul’s outreach to non-Catholics but may have hurt Biffi’s already slim odds of becoming pope.


Plastering the Bookstore Shelves

To reach wider audiences, cardinals expound on television and in print. Arinze has been a guest on “Mother Angelica Live,” a Catholic call-in show reaching 55 million homes in the United States. Emulating the current pope, a best-selling author, wannabe successors churn out tons of books and essays.

Ancora, a bookstore just off St. Peter’s Square, carries 57 works by Biffi, starting with “Beware the Antichrist.” There are 19 by Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, 16 by Danneels and 44 by Tettamanzi, including “The Prophetic Virtue of Virginity.” Martini is the most prolific, with 223.

A special assignment by John Paul can be enough to lift a cardinal to papabile status, but not to keep him there. Tapped to open the 1999 synod, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela of Spain is thought to have blown his papal prospects with a gloom-and-doom speech on the decline of faith in Europe.


Danneels raised his own stock by guiding the discussion to a more optimistic plane.

Others become papabili with support from below. Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City is a darling of the Legion of Christ, a flourishing conservative congregation of priests that was founded in Mexico and enjoys growing favor in Rome.

Rivera, 58, is one of several Third World papabili, some of them relatively young. Their prospects depend on a scenario in which the cardinal-electors, inspired by the freshness of the new millennium to look far ahead, ask themselves: Isn’t it time for a pope from Africa, where the church is growing fastest, or Latin America, where nearly half of Catholicism’s 1 billion faithful now live?

Under an alternative scenario, the conclave would elect a caretaker in his 70s to run an interim papacy, buying time to absorb and debate John Paul’s complex legacy. He might be a conciliatory Italian, wise to the intrigues of the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy--an option favored by Italians who want the papacy back.


With its tiny Christian minority, Asia is not fertile ground for would-be popes. But Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, a new cardinal who spent 13 years in a Communist prison in his native Vietnam, is on many lists as a respectable long shot.

Polish-born John Paul, the first non-Italian pontiff since a Dutchman elected in 1522 became Pope Adrian VI, has not only made the College of Cardinals bigger and more geographically diverse than ever, he has given it an elevated advisory role that allows cardinals to meet more often--and size one another up.

It would be unfair to judge everything cardinals say and write these days as posturing for the next conclave. But at a pivotal time like this, enormous weight and intent can be read into each invitation, visit and chance encounter.

Even downtime is scrutinized for telltale signs of ambition. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, spent recent vacations in England, Ireland and the United States studying English, the lingua franca of recent conclaves.


‘Superpower Pope’ Seen as Unlikely

The United States’ 11 cardinal-electors are not papabili--Vaticanologists doubt that the church is ready for a “superpower pope"--but they outnumber every national bloc except Italy’s 24 and are heavily courted.

“Every time cardinals meet, each of them is thinking: ‘How would the man I’m talking to be as pope? Does he understand my local church and my local problems?’ ” said Father Thomas J. Reese, a New York-based Jesuit theologian who wrote “Inside the Vatican,” a guide to contemporary Vatican politics.

Reese is part of a corps of Vaticanologists--attentive journalists, lay Catholic leaders and Rome-based diplomats who try to discern the secret lists of papabili taking shape in whispered conversations among cardinals.


Marco Politi, Italy’s most quoted Vaticanologist, publishes his own hunches and waits for his Vatican informants to confirm or discredit them. Last year, he speculated in his newspaper, Rome’s La Repubblica, that senior cardinals in the Curia were exploring a pre-conclave alliance with younger cardinal-archbishops in Latin America.

“The next day, I got a message on my answering machine--he didn’t leave his name, but I know the voice--and he told me, ‘Look, Marco, I read what you wrote, and that’s exactly what is happening.’ ”

After more digging, Politi identified Cuban Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino and Mexico City’s Rivera as the papabili of that alliance. The alliance is also interested, he reported, in Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, a highflying Honduran archbishop (with a pilot’s license) who is being elevated to cardinal today.

“It’s a game of nuances, allusions--a continuous interpretation of little signals,” said Politi, emphasizing that no cardinal ever names names to him. Vaticanologists “know 1% of what’s really going on. We’re navigating in the dark,” he said.


Indeed, most Vaticanologists were blindsided by Karol Wojtyla’s 1978 election as John Paul II. They overlooked one obvious sign: His extensive travels to break the Polish church’s Iron Curtain isolation brought him in contact--and made him popular--with influential cardinals in the West.

This time Vaticanologists are more alert to flying cardinals, such as Nigeria’s Arinze, who charms audiences all over the world.

Ambitious cardinals with less star appeal have to work harder at self-promotion, but they take care to let others sing their praises.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, is the pope’s powerful right-hand man but not high on most lists of papabili. Two-thirds of the electors are diocesan cardinals, and conventional wisdom holds that they’d prefer a pope like them--one with pastoral experience, not a bland career Curia official such as the 73-year-old Sodano.


‘The Holy Spirit Appoints the Pope’

But Italy’s highest-ranking cardinal signaled his papal ambition a few years ago, Vaticanologists say, by authorizing a biography touting the “great humanity and simplicity” of his service as a priest--all four years of it.

After becoming a cardinal in 1998, Castrillon put out word through acolytes that he’s interested in the papacy. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez elegized his compatriot as a “man who managed two bishoprics in Colombia with the severity of a cleric at war” and crusaded for social justice “like a poet driven by the mystical gift of inspiration.”

Like other papabili, Castrillon has a handy retort to any presumption that he’s running for pope. “In my faith, the Holy Spirit appoints the pope,” he told reporters in New York last fall. “I cannot know what he is thinking.”


This is only partly true. Cardinals gathering to elect a pontiff do, in fact, pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Afterward, said Father Richard P. McBrien, a theologian and Vaticanologist at Notre Dame University, “it’s a convenient rationalization for any choice they make.”

“But in the run-up to that decision,” he added, “there will be lots of wheeling and dealing.”