Pope John Paul II will take a secret to the grave when he is buried Friday: the identity of the last cardinal he named.
The mystery stems from the rare papal practice of naming cardinals in pectore, or in his heart. Popes have usually done this to honor a prelate's service in a country where the Roman Catholic Church is persecuted without further straining the Holy See's relations with that nation or exposing the prelate to harassment.
Sometimes even the cardinal in question is unaware of his honor. And until the pope who appointed him announces his identity, he cannot receive his scarlet biretta or take his place in the College of Cardinals. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Wednesday that John Paul's final spiritual testament, a 15-page document to be made public today, does not reveal the name of the cardinal whose in pectore appointment was announced in 2003 along with 30 who were identified.
That means the mystery cardinal, unlike his 183 peers who are named for life, has lost his rank and will not be able to join the eligible cardinals in electing a new pope.
"If the Holy Father had made that person's name known before dying, it would have been disclosed by now," Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka of Michigan said in an interview after hearing the testament Wednesday in a closed meeting of cardinals. "It's over. That person will no longer be a cardinal."
The tale of the invisible and now vanished cardinal highlights the status of the world's largest Christian church as a beleaguered minority religion in places such as China and Russia. Authorities in both countries are so averse to the Vatican that John Paul, the most-traveled pope, was unable to fulfill his dream of visiting them.
Speculation here about the secret cardinal's identity has centered on two Roman Catholic prelates in those countries.
One is Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, archbishop of Hong Kong. His public elevation to the rank of cardinal would have risked a diplomatic feud with China, which persecutes leaders of underground churches loyal to the pope and does not recognize his primacy over a state-sanctioned local Catholic Church.
The other is Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, a Pole who is archbishop of Moscow. The state-supported Russian Orthodox Church, which claims to embrace the majority of Russians, is wary of his church's efforts to win converts.
Father Thomas Reese, a Vatican specialist who edits the New York-based Jesuit magazine America, said he believed that the secret cardinal was in China.
"The Vatican would like to appoint a cardinal there to honor the Chinese Catholics, but the Chinese government would interpret this kind of thing as interference in its affairs," Reese explained. "So what the Vatican does is appoint a cardinal in pectore in the hope that the government will eventually agree."
Interviewed by Italian radio, Zen said he did not believe that he was that cardinal.
"There would be no need to keep it secret because we have freedom in Hong Kong," Zen said, adding that John Paul must have selected a prelate of the underground church on the Chinese mainland.
Speculation has also pointed to Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the fellow Pole who was at John Paul's side at the time of his death last Saturday. A public acknowledgment of cardinal status, the speculation goes, would have forced Dziwisz to give up his valued role as the pope's private secretary.
But once John Paul died, there would have been no reason to keep Dziwisz's identity as a cardinal secret, Reese and other Vatican experts said.
John Paul appointed three other in pectore cardinals but later identified them.
The late Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, an elderly bishop, was appointed in 1979 while imprisoned in China but not named publicly until 1991, after he was released and allowed to leave the country.
Archbishops Janis Pujats of Latvia and Marian Jaworski of Ukraine were made cardinals in 1998, but their names were kept secret for three years while the Vatican tried to reconcile Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church, divided since 1054. As that effort faltered, the pope decided that raising the church's profile in those former communist countries was more important, church historians say.
Guessing such a cardinal's identity is difficult because popes never explain the reason for the secrecy.
"There is a lot of speculation in the newspapers about this last cardinal, but nobody really knows," said Szoka, who is governor of Vatican City. "I have been here 15 years and I have no idea who it is."