Vatican Insiders: 'Fat Pope Will Follow Thin Pope'

Monday, 11 Feb 2013 09:41 PM

By Edward Pentin

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Edward Pentin reporting from Rome — Fevered speculation is already underway over who could succeed Pope Benedict XVI when he retires on Feb. 28th — and there is no shortage of names being put forward.

Some observers strongly argue the case for an African Pope as the faith is growing most rapidly there; others believe the papacy will return to the Italians who held it for four centuries until Polish Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978.

A further school of thought sees it going to an Asian where the Catholic Church is also rapidly growing, or to a cardinal in South America, a region where Catholicism has long been strong but is facing strong competition from Pentecostal sects.

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Whoever is elected will face a unique set of challenges, not the least of which will be leading the Catholic Church with a Pope who is still living. Although Pope Benedict has pledged to spend his time in prayer and contemplation in a monastery within the Vatican, his successor will have to learn to deal with possible authority issues among some Catholics who will remain loyal to Benedict XVI but may have difficulty acknowledging the legitimacy of his successor.

Like Benedict XVI, the new Pope will then have to confront an array of other challenges: the growth of secularism and moral relativism in post-Christian Europe and the United States and their effects; the emergence of radical Islam and an increasingly troubled Arab world; and the social fallout of debt-ridden, troubled economies.

Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue will be added challenges. Within the Church, he will have to take over the mantle of trying to bring unity to Catholics, a task Benedict XVI tried especially hard to achieve, and all the difficulties and obstacles that entails.

Predicting the next Pope is always a highly presumptive and precarious endeavour. But it also sheds some light on how the Church differs from any other earthly institution.

For Catholics, the Church is not a political institution, nor a corporation headed by a white-robed CEO, but a divine body, guided by the Holy Spirit, albeit made up of men and women with human imperfections. And those imperfections are not invisible, as some past papal elections have shown.

Furthermore, Cardinal electors do not generally enter the Sistine Chapel with a checklist of abilities to tick off like a presidential primary because the Pope is not a functionary so much as a figure with a much loftier, deeper and sacramental role. He is therefore chosen more on who he is than what he can do.

Because of that, the overriding aspect cardinal-electors will be looking for is holiness, and after that his personal abilities. He will, above all, be someone of prayer, and a man for whom the transcendent reality is a daily reality.

His essential reference point will not be politics, administration or governance but Jesus Christ, and his relationship with him. The ideal candidate for many cardinals, therefore, will be someone who has Christ-like qualities, someone pastoral, with deep compassion for the poor, suffering and most vulnerable, especially the unborn.

Only after that comes competence: the candidate’s intelligence and his grasp of current issues, to have at least some media abilities, as well as a flair for languages — particularly Italian and English — are all worthy attributes.

Many Roman adages surround a conclave, and most of them are unreliable, but one which may well apply in the next papal election is that “a fat Pope follows a thin Pope.” It means that in choosing a pontiff, the cardinal-electors often — though not always — look for personal qualities that were missing in the previous pontiff. As age has become such an issue in this pontificate, it seems highly likely that a younger candidate will be chosen.

Also, as one of Benedict XVI’s weaknesses has been his inability to reform and streamline the Vatican bureaucracy as many had hoped, cardinals may choose someone — most probably a reform-minded Italian with a good knowledge of the Roman Curia — to make those necessary changes which have eluded so many previous pontiffs.

As for the election itself, theories abound that certain nationalities won’t vote for others: Italians allegedly won’t vote for Africans, Africans won’t vote for Asians, and Asians won’t vote for South Americans.

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How much this is true is open to question, but as Michael Walsh wrote in his book "The Conclave": “The further a Pope’s ethnic origins are from the city of Rome, the more remote he appears from the bishopric of Rome.” That doesn’t rule out electing an African or Asian, but to do so takes a far greater leap of faith than choosing a European, and many still cannot see it happening.

An American Pope is also considered unlikely (though not impossible). Ever since the French Pope Clement V became a tool of the French monarchy (then the world’s most powerful nation), and transferred the entire papacy to Avignon in 1309, the Church has been reluctant to elect a Pope from a ruling superpower. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s part of the Church’s tradition.

In any case, all this speculation is somewhat academic as Catholics believe the choice of the Pope is ultimately not made by human minds, but rather the Holy Spirit.

Some leading papabile:

Cardinal Marc Ouellet
  • Prefect of Congregation for Bishops.
  • Noted for his cheerful, open and humble persona as well as his uncompromising orthodoxy, Canadian Cardinal Ouellet has for some years been regarded as the cardinal to watch for the future.
  • As Archbishop of Quebec, he was a lone voice surrounded by liberal bishops and radical secularism, and has resolutely remained one of the most staunch defenders of the Catholic faith in the Canadian hierarchy.
  • A native French speaker and the author of many books, he is also a proficient linguist. He is 68.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith
  • Archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  • Hugely popular among the more orthodox wing of the Church, Cardinal Ranjith ticks many of the boxes required to be Pope.
  • Known for his personal holiness and administrative abilities, he is also a trained Vatican diplomat who has served in many cities around the world.
  • Strongly loyal to Pope Benedict, he has also spent time in the Roman Curia as number two in the Vatican’s department on liturgy.
  • He is also well respected in his native land. He is 65.
Cardinal Angelo Scola
  • Archbishop of Milan, Italy.
  • Son of a truck driver and once an outsider to take over from John Paul II, Cardinal Scola, 71, has for some years been the bookie's favorite to succeed Benedict XVI.
  • An eminent scholar, he has striven to find ways to avoid a ‘clash of civilizations’ through building of forum for dialogue and encounter between the West and Islam.
  • An ebullient but warm character he is also a polyglot and a respected intellectual — though sometimes the depth of his intellect can confound even the most erudite of theologians.
Cardinal Robert Sarah
  • President of the Pontifical Charity Cor Unum.
  • A native of Guinea, gently spoken Cardinal Sarah, 67, is both frank and uncompromising when it comes to the Church’s teaching and respected in the Roman Curia.
  • He has been instrumental in overseeing a radical restructuring of the Catholic Church’s international development aid programs which, under Benedict XVI, have become more explicitly Catholic in their identity.
Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke
  • Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.
  • In the unlikely event of an American being chosen, chances are he would be Cardinal Burke.
  • Humble, orthodox and fiercely uncompromising especially about Catholic politicians practicing their faith coherently, he recently said that Irish Catholic politicians who support abortion should not receive Holy Communion.
  • Cardinal Burke, 64, a native of Richland Center, Wisc. is an expert in Canon Law and a keen proponent of the traditional liturgy.
  • He has also been a close confident of Pope Benedict.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn
  • Archbishop of Vienna, Austria.
  • A member of a prominent aristocratic Austrian family that produced two cardinals in the 18th and 19th centuries, Cardinal Schoenborn, 68, has long been considered a serious candidate for Pope, but his star has waned a little in recent years as he has become encumbered with a number of controversies, and his handling of those controversies has been questioned.
  • Nevertheless, he has had extensive experience of defending the Church in the face of radical secularism in Austria.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco
  • Archbishop of Genoa, Italy.
  • A firm and loyal friend of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Bagnasco, 70, has emerged as a doughty yet softly spoken and deeply pastoral leader of the Church in Italy, and an ideal candidate to tackle increasing secularism.
  • His meteoric rise is testament to his abilities.
  • He has spoken out strongly in defense of Church teaching, notably against same-sex unions in 2007, a battle the Italian Church eventually won but which led to death threats against him and the presence of armed guards.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga
  • Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
  • A trained aircraft pilot and saxophonist, Cardinal Maradiaga, 70, is from the more liberal wing of the Church.
  • He has long been one of Latin America’s leading voices in the College of Cardinals, especially on social justice issues.
  • He once called poverty and social injustice the real "weapons of mass destruction" and said globalization is creating a world in which "the greediness of a few is leaving the majority on the margin of history."
  • He is most popular in Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.
  • He is also good with the media, and speaks eight languages.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson
  • President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
  • Now 64, Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson was the youngest cardinal when John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 2003.
  • Since then, he has made his mark as a champion of Christian unity, interreligious dialogue and the Church in Africa.
  • A proficient linguist (he speaks six languages), many see him as a logical choice to become an African Pope.
  • But his judgement has been questioned by some since he became president of the Pontifical Council.
Cardinal Péter Erdõ
  • Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary.
  • At only 60, Cardinal Erdõ, the primate of Hungary, is one of the youngest members of the College of Cardinals.
  • A canon lawyer, he has a string of awards and positions to his name.
  • He is also the president of Europe’s Catholic bishops, an advisor to a number of Vatican departments and has written hundreds of research papers and articles.
  • His star is rising and is one to watch.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.

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