May 23, 2001
volume 12, no. 129

Is the Consistory a Dress Rehearsal for the Conclave?

Questions naturally arise as to whom might be Papabile

    VATICAN (MediaNews) -- The College of Cardinals is gathering at the Vatican Monday through Thursday with the solemn task of sorting out the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church in the third millennium.

    As they sit in the Apostolic Palace, not far from the Sistine Chapel where princes of the church elect a new pope, the cardinals will also be a little like characters summoned at the end of an Agatha Christie mystery, looking around the room and and wondering, "Which one of us is it?"

    The four-day consistory, a meeting that Vatican watchers are studying as a "pre-conclave," gives the pope's advisers an opportunity to campaign among their peers.

    "Every time one of them gets up to speak, the other cardinals will be asking themselves, 'What kind of pope would this guy make?'" said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, an American Jesuit who wrote "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church."

    Speculation about who will someday take the place of John Paul II, who turned 81 on Friday, has been a Vatican parlor game for more than a decade, long enough for some early favorites to have died. But the consistory, the first such gathering of cardinals since 1994, brings together all 134 men who are under 80 and eligible to vote in a papal conclave, as well as all non-electors, or at least those healthy enough to travel. Last February, the pope named 44 new cardinals, packing the total to 183, the largest college in history.

    A silent contest among papal contenders has gone on for years, of course. Outright campaigning is taboo, but there are discreet ways for cardinals to polish their credentials, from foreign trips and carefully timbered public statements to favoring a colleague with fund-raising help or serving Mass in a local church.

    Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 73, the powerful Vatican secretary of state, who is said to be a papal contender, is a highly effective bureaucrat, but he is not particularly known for pastoral warmth. Last March, however, he took a rare break from his busy diplomatic schedule to bless Roman drivers and their cars at the Church of St. Francesca Romana, the patron saint of motorists.

    The extraordinary consistory, the sixth of this papacy, was called by the pope to discuss the apostolic letter in which he raised some key concerns for the future, from ecumenical understanding to ways to broaden consultation within the Roman Catholic Church, a sensitive topic inside the church hierarchy.

    But the meeting has a broad agenda, and its closed-door setting allows cardinals to speak their minds -- and also influence the minds of their fellow electors. The cardinals will even get a chance to test the conclave accommodations of Domus Sanctae Martae, a plush $20 million hotel on Vatican grounds that was opened in 1996 by John Paul II, who in the 1978 conclave was one of 110 cardinal-electors who slept in uncomfortable makeshift cells set up near the Sistine Chapel.

    John Paul, whose 23-year tenure is the longest of the last 100 years, has put his indelible stamp on the church and on the College of Cardinals, where he has selected all but 11 of the 134 men eligible to vote in a conclave.

    This pope has cracked down hard on theologians who stray from strict orthodoxy, and he has made conservative rulings on social issues, from birth control to women's ordination. Most of the cardinals, handpicked by John Paul II, share his views, but others have hinted that there is room for more discussion in the future, leaving an opening for a moderate candidate who could appeal to liberals without affronting conservatives.

    The current group is diverse geographically, if less so ideologically. Twenty-six are from Latin America, now one of the largest voting blocs, though Italy is still the country with the greatest number of cardinals: 24.

    A little like baseball devotees, Vaticanisti, as Vatican specialists are known in Italy, can shape raw statistics into elegant theories about how the next conclave might vote.

    The fact that non-Europeans now have such a strong presence in the college could work in favor of a cardinal who could deepen the church's reach into the developing world. Cardinals from Latin America, the region with the largest number of the world's 1 billion Catholics, are closely watched, especially Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, 58, of Mexico.

    Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 59, of Honduras, named in February, is also mentioned, both because of his background as a pastor who has championed the rights of the poor and because he is a skilled communicator who has mastered the delicate art of signaling his aptitude for the job by denying any interest in it.

    "Only the Holy Spirit knows," he said, smiling and brushing off questions about his chances in the next conclave. His Honduran supporters prodded the Holy Spirit a little by hoisting banners promoting "John Paul III" when their man was given his red biretta at St. Peter's in February.

    "I am not considered papabile," the cardinal demurred, using an Italian word for someone who is seen as papal material. "Those were the words of some friends."

    A few, however, are more blunt. "We pray God that our pope will live many more years, but participation in an eventual conclave is a very important part of our job," Cardinal Ignacio Antonio Velasco Garcia of Venezuela said when he got his red biretta in February. He also said the time was ripe for a Latin American pope.

    Cardinal Francis Arinze, 68, a Nigerian who was converted from animism by Irish missionaries and is now in charge of the Vatican's relations with other religions, is also on the list of papabile -- as a long shot. He accompanied John Paul II to Greece, Malta and Syria.

    Good-humored but press-shy, Arinze closely follows cardinal etiquette. Asked about his contribution to the first papal visit to a mosque, he smiled benignly. "Others do the work," he said on the plane to Damascus. "Then they give me the credit."

    Church officials who work closely with cardinals say that most genuinely do not aspire to so demanding a job. But they acknowledge that human nature does not change even when cloaked under scarlet robes. Cardinals can be likened to U.S. senators, many of whom do not think themselves worthy of the presidency until they take a second look at their peers who have no such qualms.

Four Days that could jolt the Papacy

David Gibson, New Jersey Star-Ledger

    History abounds with evidence that popes are not inclined to surrender any of their considerable authority and that the Roman Catholic Church, as it is often said, is not a democracy.

    Which is why this week's meeting in Rome between Pope John Paul II and the world's cardinals is so unusual. Discussions that will begin tomorrow among the churchmen are expected to include talks on the role of the papacy -- talks called at the behest of the Pope himself, in the face of resistance from his own tradition-minded lieutenants at the Vatican.

    If this meeting of Catholic prelates does not qualify as an exercise in grassroots politics, it is still, for the church, an extraordinary gathering on an almost taboo subject.

    "He did it again -- John Paul II has surprised everyone," the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and an expert on the politics of the hierarchy, said when the Monday-through-Thursday meeting was announced.

    News of the gathering came in late February, just after the Pope appointed 44 new cardinals -- a record number that raised the membership in the august College of Cardinals to a high of 183 -- and it was widely assumed that the next time the exclusive body met would be to elect a successor to the frail John Paul, who turned 81 Friday.

    But throughout the years, the Pope has enjoyed confounding the experts, taking actions considered out of character for a staunchly "conservative" pope, such as his regular apologies for past sins of the church against various groups, from Jews to fellow Christians.

    Moreover, John Paul has been signaling for years that he is open to a discussion on the office of the papacy, the "Petrine ministry" that Catholics believe stretches back nearly 2,000 years and 264 pontiffs to St. Peter, the apostle to whom Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom.

    In a 1995 document on the elusive search for Christian unity, John Paul said he recognized other Christians' historical mistrust of the papacy and was open to discussion of "a new situation" for the papal office.

    In January he returned to that theme in a document on the new millennium. When he elevated the cardinals the following month, his homily focused on rethinking the papacy and on his awareness that his office "constitutes a difficulty" for non-Catholic Christians.

    In the circumspect parlance of the church, such talk is nothing short of "revolutionary," as one theologian put it. Yet in spite of his words, John Paul has so far taken few concrete actions toward whatever "new situation" he has in mind.

    "He is kind of a conflicted individual," said the Rev. John W. O'Malley, a professor of historical theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, in Cambridge, Mass.

    "Deep, deep, deep down, his heart is in the right place. But he's caught in his own conservative culture," said O'Malley, who has written about what he calls the "papalization" of Catholicism -- namely, the trend in the past two centuries to view the papacy as the defining characteristic of Catholicism.

    "This is clearly preoccupying him," O'Malley said of the controversial views of the papacy. "This is a bee in his bonnet. Now what sort of limits he will put on the discussion, who knows?"

    On the eve of this week's meeting -- called an "extraordinary consistory" -- there were already indications that the Roman curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that acts as a doctrinal ombudsman for the billion-member church, was trying to divert attention from the possibility of a reconfigured papacy.

    Curial officials circulated a set of talking points to the cardinals. Reportedly, it lists a host a topics for discussion -- New Age movements, sexuality, the media -- and no direct references to the papacy. Besides, with just 20 hours of actual discussion with the Pope slated over the four days, a crowded agenda wouldn't leave much time for such tough issues.

    But the talking points also say that cardinals can raise any issue they consider "most urgent." There is a general expectation they will try to talk about "decentralization" and "collegiality" -- church shorthand for power-sharing -- because so many cardinals have grown frustrated with what they see as an intrusive curia and too much focus on the papacy.

    "I wouldn't say we come to blows, but the tension is there," Scottish Archbishop Keith O'Brien said two years ago in a moment of candor about the difficult balance of power in the church.

    Such talk has become increasingly frank, and public. Leading churchmen have raised the idea of a new church council, a churchwide event that last took place in the 1960s in Rome. Just last month, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, an influential German prelate, told Italian newspapers that the papacy is "the principal obstacle" to ecumenical progress and that a new council would open the door to "greater collegiality."

    "It is time to think about the manner in which the church should make future decisions on fundamental pastoral questions," Lehmann said.

    Still, whether this week's talks will produce anything groundbreaking is unclear -- and because of the secretive nature of the meetings, it is doubtful the outside world would learn of any major changes for months.

    Conservative Catholics such as papal biographer George Weigel ("Witness to Hope") say liberals counting on some grand reform are in for disappointment. The consistory, Weigel said, is simply another step in John Paul's long campaign to change the church's own culture from institutional to evangelical.

    "People who imagine this consistory as producing dramatic structural innovations are crazy," said Weigel. "For 23 years, the Pope has been trying to get these guys (the cardinals) to think out of the box, to think about evangelization. The institutional church does not exist for itself.

    "This meeting is not about making General Motors run more efficiently. He wants these guys to think more like St. Augustine and less like Lee Iacocca."

    The Pope also knows the value of personal contact among a group of churchmen from around the globe who have never met together.

    "He wants to let these guys get to know each other a little bit," Weigel said. "It is a big bunch of guys now, more than 180 of them. The Pope is a great believer in conversation."

    To some, the meeting could be a dry run for the conclave -- the meeting upon John Paul's death in which the College of Cardinals will choose a new pope from their ranks.

    But Weigel dismissed that notion, too.

    "The Pope is not thinking about dying. He is booked solid through 2002," Weigel said. "I don't think that in his mind this is the Iowa caucuses."

May 23, 2001
volume 12, no. 129
News from ROME
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