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What kind of pope will they pick next?


Pope Paul VI had been dead less than a week. Cardinals were arriving from distant lands. Vatican City was buzzing.

An interregnum -- that time between popes -- is part solemn and part carnival. Never is it more clear how childlike Catholics are than when Father is absent. With each papal death they frolic briefly in new-felt freedom, planning their futures, politicking to take greater control of their lives. After the white smoke rises above the Sistine Chapel, they again cede the reins to a new Holy Father and brace themselves to accept what follows.

Twenty years ago, the man who emerged on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square was named Albino Luciani. He had not been high on any list. The smiling unknown Italian emerged as a “surprise” choice, serving a month before his equally surprising death.

When the shocked cardinals returned to Rome for the second time that autumn, they asked themselves how they could have overlooked something as basic as health. They were determined not to let it happen again. So this time they gave the world an even bigger surprise, a 58-year-old, robust Pole named Karol Wojtyla.

Then Pope John Paul II set out to deliver some surprises of his own. Within weeks renewal was being questioned and before long it was under siege.

John Paul II has repeatedly said he intends to lead the church into the next millennium. But he will not shape it. More likely, he will be remembered as the pope who closed the door on a period of church history. As his pontificate draws to an end, many are asking who will lead Catholics in the church’s next phase.

My guess is that next time the cardinals will act cautiously, acknowledging divisions, looking for someone to bring healing, not ideology.

Some in the secular media are eager to hype the event. On a recent “60 Minutes” report Fr. Richard McBrien and Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese were pressed to suggest the next pope might be an African (Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria) or a Jew (Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of France). Not likely.

It is conventional wisdom that John Paul has so stacked the college of cardinals with staunch conservatives that his successor will emerge as a JP II clone. Not likely, either.

Other factors will come into play. The cardinals will be influenced by the length of this pontificate (too long), by turn of the century uncertainties and, -- most important -- by a sense of their own diminished status within the church.

McBrien pointed out that short pontificates follow long pontificates. The idea is to elect an older man to hold on while others take stock and prepare to go forward once again. This reasoning would have the next pope as a “bridge” figure. He would be a man in his late 60s or even 70s.

The same reasoning is leading many observers to think he will once again be an Italian, the safe choice.

But another conservative cut out of the John Paul II cloth? Very unlikely.

Despite the seemingly “stacked” college of cardinals, I suspect the next pope will be of moderate temperament and theological disposition. Further, by John Paul’s standards his ecclesiology may appear downright progressive. He will try to run a much more open shop.

Why? Because nearly all who will be called upon to elect the next pope share the feeling, along with the rest of us, that they have been pushed outside the critical inner circle of church decision-making. The virtually unprecedented centralization of church authority under John Paul has so characterized the second half of his pontificate that only a small minority -- maybe a dozen cardinals -- could still feel they have any real influence in molding church affairs. And this group is resented by other prelates.

There is little doubt that many cardinals feel diminished, even demeaned by the ways they have been treated by members of the curia. They have suffered quietly, but they will want this to end. Expect, then, the promise of a return to effective collegiality to be the ticket to a papal election.

The church’s centralizing forces fear such a development. So they are doing everything they can, while John Paul is still pope, to lock up Peter’s keys. This may explain the fury of recent authoritarian directives. But with each move comes more alienation and greater anger among many waiting electors.

It will be a distinctly different pontificate, soon followed by yet another more suited to move the church aggressively into the future.

Catholic author Eugene Kennedy, in a recent conversation with NCR staff, said today’s church is in “intermission,” between acts. The curtain has come down on the authoritarian church model of centuries past, and the church awaits its future, the next act.

The next pope may merely serve as usher, helping us move about during this middle moment, or he might very well appear on stage and play a major role.

The Second Vatican Council paved the way for Catholicism to enter modernity. The world’s bishops began a process that has slowed, not stopped. We await with interest the new twists the Spirit has in store next time.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998