VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II has created new cardinals eight times, in a colorful and historic ritual that has become familiar over the years. But most people agreed there was something different about the consistory of 2001.
It wasn't just the magnitude of the ceremony -- a record 44 new cardinals and a huge crowd of about 40,000 well-wishers. Nor was it the fact that everything fell into place, including the weather, which offered up two sunny, springlike days in the middle of February.
This consistory was different because most of the media and some in the church tended to view it as a dress rehearsal for a conclave.
At 80, Pope John Paul has given no indication that he intends to resign, despite evident physical frailty caused by a neurological disorder. He has weathered years of alarmist rumors about his health and seems determined to keep doing as much as he can for as long as he can.
But when he named 40 new voting-age cardinals in one fell swoop -- about 30 percent of those who would participate in a conclave -- he opened a season of speculation about who may follow in his footsteps.
For one thing, the pope broke the ``rules'' in a big way when he left the College of Cardinals with 135 voting members, 15 more than the technical limit. Some observers thought the pontiff was saying: This may be my last round of cardinal-making, and I want to make it count.
A second factor was that the pope seemed to go out of his way to include church leaders who at times have questioned Vatican policies, or who have been cast as ``liberal'' in the popular eye. The prime example was German Cardinal Karl Lehmann, but others from Latin America were also cited.
By adding voices that sometimes sing outside the chorus, the thinking went, the pope may have wanted to show that the body that will one day elect his successor is not a monolith of identical opinions.
More than 350 journalists came to Rome for the event, and they lined up to ask the new cardinals what they'd be looking for when it comes time to elect the next pope. But few cardinals were taking the bait.
``Pope John Paul is happily still reigning,'' said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, brushing aside questions about the next conclave.
Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York said he didn't think the cardinals would be gathering in conclave for ``a long, long time.'' He recalled Pope Leo XIII's riposte when someone wished him a long life of 80 years: ``Please don't place a limit on providence.'' Pope Leo died at age 93.
Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick said he doubts he'll ever enter a conclave, noting that he has about nine-and-a-half years before he turns 80 and becomes ineligible to vote in a papal election.
``I think this Holy Father is good for nine-and-a-half years. I think he is frail with regard to walking, but I think he is a very healthy, strong man. His mind is fine,'' Cardinal McCarrick said.
Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, recently cited as a ``papabile'' or potential future pope, spent the week downplaying his own chances, saying papal election was up to the Holy Spirit.
Before he left for Rome to receive his ``red hat,'' Venezuelan Cardinal Ignacio Antonio Velasco Garcia told journalists that the next pope would probably be a Latin American and said he'd be happy to vote for someone from his own region. During his stay in Rome, perhaps someone clued him into an unwritten rule among the cardinals: Never speak publicly about the next pope as long as this one's alive.
In addition, the written rules for a conclave specifically state that during a pope's lifetime, cardinals are forbidden from making plans or decisions about the election of an eventual successor.
But when cardinals gather together, as during a week of consistory activities, the press and public imagine that the political wheels must be turning. Thus a celebratory dinner with cardinals from Italy and Germany in a hotel near the Vatican generated the next day's newspaper headline: ``At the Germans' dinner, talk of a successor.''
More likely, the cardinals quietly discussed papal health, but with the deference they've always shown on the subject.
In recent months, in fact, the pope has resumed a rather heavy post-jubilee schedule of ``ad limina'' meetings with bishops from around the world, parish visits and audiences with important figures. Sometimes he looks lively and involved in these sessions.
On other occasions he looks like he's struggling a bit. After a private audience with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Feb. 20, the pontiff dutifully greeted the entourage, posed expressionless for photos, then quickly headed his guests toward the door.
On the way out, he started to say something in English about the reality of the Old Testament still having relevance today, but he did not complete his thought.
During the consistory, the pope greeted each cardinal as warmly as his frail body could muster, then basked in the sun with a look of real satisfaction. After a Mass in St. Peter's Square the next day, he took one last ride through the cardinals' section in his jeep.
The cardinals were happy to see a big smile on his face -- perhaps the best barometer of papal energy and spirits these days.