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NEWS ANALYSIS: John Paul II Left Big Shoes for the Pope Who Follows

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Pity the man _ and it must be a man _ who follows John Paul II to the chair of Peter. He will be measured against a predecessor who was a philosopher, mystic, playwright, scholar, linguist, master communicator and adroit geopolitician _ someone who bent one of the world's […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Pity the man _ and it must be a man _ who follows John Paul II to the chair of Peter.

He will be measured against a predecessor who was a philosopher, mystic, playwright, scholar, linguist, master communicator and adroit geopolitician _ someone who bent one of the world's oldest offices to his iron will.

“People have differing opinions as to his theological and ecclesiastical legacy … but he certainly raised the standard for the papacy,'' said John-Peter Pham, a writer and former Vatican diplomat now at James Madison University in Virginia.

Yet in the long twilight of John Paul's slow deterioration, the cardinals of the Catholic Church have had time to think about what they want in the man they elect to succeed John Paul.

In a world in which candidates never say they are candidates and traditional campaigning is forbidden, scores of journalists and other Vatican watchers for months have strained to read the subtle signs of Vatican culture for some hints about the future.

They draft and redraft lists of possible candidates. And always, they know the first rule of papal speculation: The unexpected is not only possible, it is routine.

“A lot of people have lost their reputation for prescience by trying to outguess the Holy Spirit,'' said philosopher and writer Michael Novak.

In 1963, Cardinal Giovanni Montini of Milan was deemed certain to ascend to the papacy, and he did. “But the two after that were total surprises,'' said Novak, especially the Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II.

The uncertainty of it inevitably appeals to the sporting blood.

Internet bookies in the United Kingdom opened odds on the next pope weeks ago. The recent favorite: Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, at 3.5 to 1.

Despite the uncertainty, one important theme is reliably fixed, according to interviews with church historians and other experts: Although the new pope will lead in his own way, giving greatest attention to issues of his own choice, the general theme will be continuity in doctrine set by John Paul II. The protective institutional filters that winnowed eligible electors down to 117 gray-haired cardinals ensures that those select few are guardians of the faith as it has long been understood.

Indeed, all but three were appointed by John Paul himself.

In the broadest terms, the next pope will continue to speak up for the poor and the disenfranchised, for stewardship of the environment and on behalf of traditional understandings of marriage, sexuality and gender.

But within that framework, institutions also make adjustments.

After a long term under a leader with a particular mix of skills, every institution looks for a leader with different strengths to address areas long overlooked, church historians say.

The conventional wisdom, historians say, is that however much it admired the papacy of John Paul II, the church thinks that 26 years is a long time to be led by one person, so the next pope may be picked with an eye to a shorter reign.

“There's both conventional wisdom and historical precedent for the idea that the church now will want to give itself some breathing space,'' Pham said.

That means selecting a pope young enough to inject some long-missed vigor into the office, but sufficiently advanced in years not to persevere for decades, said the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

“I'd guess someone around 65, or a healthy 70,'' said Monsignor Robert Wister, a church historian at Seton Hall University.

But, Pham said, “whether you want to attribute it to the Holy Spirit or something else, history has a sense of humor about this.''


For instance, looking for a short-term caretaker after the 31-year reign of Pope Pius IX, the second-longest in church history, in 1878 cardinals turned to frail, elderly Cardinal Vincenzo Pecci, who became Leo XIII.

Pecci surprised everybody with his tenacity. He outlived all but one of his electors and served for 25 years, the third-longest, until John Paul passed him last year.

Surprises come in other ways, too.

“Cardinals don't always get the pope they want or expect,'' Wister said. “You think you know who you're electing, but you're a different man as governor of Arkansas or Texas than you are as president of the United States. You have a whole new set of issues to confront.''

In 1958, as the church moved out of the long shadow of Pius XII, the wartime pope who served for 20 years, Pope John XXIII was famously viewed as a “caretaker'' pope expected to keep the seat warm, and little more.

But although his five-year reign was as brief as expected, he was no caretaker. He rolled a hand grenade into the church by convening the reform-minded Second Vatican Council, which energized the church in ways that still dominate its life 40 years later.

Some observers think they see other signs pointing the way to the future.

Wister and others think there's little chance the next pope will be a Vatican careerist, but will instead come from the ranks of cardinals who run local churches. “The period in which a pope could be elected with no pastoral experience whatever, that period is past,'' Pham said.


Guessing about what will happen in the conclave generally involves two things: what the cardinal electors think are the most pressing needs of the church, and whose skills best fit those needs.

Presumably, not even the cardinals themselves know yet whether they agree on the church's near-term agenda. But historians, theologians and church journalists offer these issues:

_ Confronting globalization. Speaking up for the dignity of workers caught up in global economic machinery that seeks always to drive down wages and dehumanize workers was a pillar of John Paul's papacy.

_ Global social justice. Closely linked to globalization, it means seeking debt relief for struggling Third World countries, environmental justice for the poor and relief _ where possible _ from political tyranny.

_ Interreligious dialogue: Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame has argued that Islam, with its own store of spiritual values, is a potential ally with Christianity in confronting secularism and globalism. In addition, the cardinals may want someone to aggressively pursue John Paul's historic openings to Judaism.

_ Bioethics and sexuality. The ethics of removing artificial nutrition and hydration from gravely ill patients like Terri Schiavo is only the latest wrinkle in the continuing challenges that medical technologies present to the world.

_ Decentralization within the church. This is the top issue in the estimate of John Allen, author of “All the Pope's Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks.'' It is an internal matter of church governance, but a crucial one. There are deep tensions within the church between forces loyal to John Paul who approve of his consolidating power to the Vatican, versus bishops who want more freedom to act in collective local groups in their local churches.

_ Theological orthodoxy. Here is the top issue in the estimation of George Weigel, the American papal biographer. Many Catholic conservatives feel American bishops act more as corporate managers than successors to the apostles, thus their disastrous efforts at quiet damage control when confronted with sexually abusive priests. These believers assert that episcopal timidity spreads into the ranks. For them, the issue is how to boldly reassert traditional doctrines, like birth control, which are now widely rejected.

“It's not pure politics,'' Wister said. “It's religion and faith. They all share the same faith. What we would call politics in the world they would call pastoral policies. And the question is, to what extent do you push certain issues or not push them?''



(Bruce Nolan is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.)