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by Paul Collins

A couple of weeks ago I was in Rome. These days I go about every nine months to get the feel of the place so I'll be ready for the next conclave - if I live that long! My wife said I seemed rather depressed while we were there. I don't know about "depressed"' but I certainly felt like an outsider. This is probably how Jesus would have felt if he were there.

It wasn't Rome that was the problem. The palpable sense of history and seeing and meeting so many people from all over the world makes me feel more Catholic than ever. It was around the Vatican that I felt out-of-sorts. Perhaps it's a result of age, or more likely, "reduction to the lay state" that alienates me from all those self-important clerics who stride around the place. They look so immature.

In fact, there seemed to be so many young guys in dark suits, or cassocks, or habits, it was like a veritable clerical population explosion. No wonder we're short of young priests out on the ridges. They all seem to be papal bureaucrats.

This time we had good accommodation between the Vatican and the Castel Sant'Angelo. I slept soundly and felt very orthodox knowing the Pope was literally just up the street. And my one-time inquisitor, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was snoring contentedly in an apartment less that five hundred metres away.

But the Vatican nowadays has a definite fin de siècle, slightly bizarre feel about it. We were there for the day Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824) was beatified, the nun whose visions of Jesus death inspired that orgy of violence, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The same day it was also the turn of the incompetent Emperor Karl I Hapsburg (1916-1918). I once baptised an archduchess so I'm not per se opposed to royalty. But Blessed Karl I? Pious, perhaps, but heroic sanctity? That Sunday it seemed as though the whole place was the venue for an international yodelling competition, there were so many lederhosen-clad chaps around.

There is no doubt the second longest papacy in history is grinding to a halt. (Forget about St Peter whose dates are too fluid to be certain). The evidence is overwhelming that the Pope is having increasing difficulty communicating clearly - except perhaps in Polish - which as Italian Vaticanologist Sandro Magister has pointed out, gives a lot of power and influence to his Secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz (pronounced "gee-veech"). He is only Vice-Prefect of the Papal Household, but around the Vatican traps he's known as Pope Stan I! It is he who mediates everything going to and from the Pope.

In fact, the papacy has now narrowed down to the papal appartamento, as it's known locally. There are those who are 'in' with the apartment and those who are 'out'. As the Pope's health deteriorates the 'in' group gets ever smaller. Certainly, Ratzinger and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, are still 'in'. But in the last twelve months the key figure besides Dziwisz is Sodano's off-sider, the Argentinian Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Substitute Secretary of State for General Affairs, who sees the Pope daily and briefs him on what is happening across the church and world. Access is the key to influence.

One who used to be 'in' but now seems more 'out' is Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. He only gets a once-a-week audience when he comes with nominations for new bishops.

As the Pope weakens, the in-fighting and posturing intensifies. The different Vatican dicasteries (departments) act as independent fiefdoms at the best of times. Throughout his papacy John Paul II has generally given them their heads as long as they followed his general policy. Since the time of Paul VI the Secretariat of State was there to act as a co-ordinating body for the Curia. But with the guiding papal hand gone and Sodano none too competent, the power-grabs have become endemic.

For example, Ratzinger nowadays issues what are almost Encyclical letters to the bishops as though he were pope. The latest was his Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women (July 2004). Last year he issued a Doctrinal Note on Catholics in Political Life and Considerations on the Legal Recognition of Homosexual Unions and in 2000 Dominus Jesus on the unique role of Christ. As the Pope weakens Ratzinger takes up the running on doctrine almost as though he shared in the charism of infallibility.

This is the nub of the problem. For years the doyen of Vatican commentators, Giancarlo Zizola has been calling for objective canonical and constitutional measures to deal with an incapacitated pope. I've no doubt John Paul has already entrusted a letter of resignation to either Dziwisz, or Ratzinger as Dean of the College of Cardinals, or to the Camerlengo (Chamberlain) the 'close-to-Opus Dei' Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, to be activated if he becomes senile or mentally incompetent. But who defines this? With all due respect, the power and influence of these three personages depends directly on this papacy continuing as long as possible. Ratzinger recently told the Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana: "The pope is selected for life because he is a father and his paternity goes before his function. Perhaps in the future, with life being prolonged, one would consider new norms but it doesn't seem to me to be a current issue". Of course not!

Then there is the succession. This depends on when the conclave is held. The longer John Paul II lives the more the scene changes. It is also hard to predict how the cardinals will act once inside the Sistine Chapel. This is the least predictable conclave for several centuries.

Let's say the conclave happens within the next twelve months. To be a candidate a cardinal will need to be in reasonably good health. They won't want a Wojtyla clone. They won't be looking for the opposite either. Ideally they will look for someone around 68 to 70 who speaks perfect Italian (the pope is, after all, Bishop of Rome) and who also has a good grasp of English and Spanish, the two most broadly spoken languages in the church.

Another possibility is that, since we are entering a new millennium, the cardinals while relatively conservative in attitude, are uncertain as to the tack the church should take. So they will opt for a 'safe' candidate whose papacy will be brief so perhaps even someone in their mid-seventies might be elected.

A candidate will need to be reasonably progressive on political and economic issues with strong sympathy for the conditions of the poor of the third world. But to be papabile ("electable") he will need to be cautious and preferably conservative on theological issues and committed to defending the core beliefs of Catholicism, while remaining open to the other churches and religions. He will also need to have some pastoral and administrative experience. A key issue will also be the ability to build good relations with Islam, but also be able to defend Catholics in Muslim countries like Iraq.

The cardinals will begin the conclave by looking for an Italian. However, those Italians seen as papabile - Milan's Dionigi Tettamanzi (69), Ennio Antonelli (66) of Florence, and Tarcisio Bertone (68) of Genoa - are not particularly talented, Venice's Angelo Scola (62) is too young and a Wojtyla clone, and Giovanni Battista Re (69) has spent his life in the Vatican. After eliminating the Italians, the cardinals will look to the Iberian-Latin American group, or to other Europeans. The Spanish-Portuguese-speaking bloc now makes up more than a quarter of voting cardinals.

Among the Latin Americans the three stand to out: Claudio Hummes (69), the Franciscan Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Majella Agnelo (70), President of the Brazilian Bishops Conference and, as an outsider, the Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio (67), the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires. A possible compromise candidate from this bloc is the Patriarch of Lisbon (Portugal) Jose da Cruz Policarpo (67) who is a good theologian with a lot of pastoral experience.

One group you can discount are the Americans. While there is some sympathy for the US among some influential Italian churchmen such as the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Camillo Ruini, the Vatican generally reflects European scepticism about Bush's 'new world order'.

Among the Europeans are Godfried Daneels (71) of Brussels. An intelligent, experienced and well-informed moderate, he is seen by many as "progressive" but is widely respected. Another possibility is Cardinal Walter Kasper (71). The best theologian among the cardinals, he was Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart before heading-up the Christian Unity Council. He is probably "too liberal". The other European often mentioned is Christoph Schonborn of Vienna (59). Then there is the perennial 'Black' candidate, Francis Arinze (71), of Nigeria. Both are outside possibilities.

Finally, Joseph Ratzinger (77) keeps getting mentioned. I'd bet my bottom dollar His Eminence of Sydney will give him his vote at the first scrutiny (ballot), as will many others. This is when you nominate a cardinal you want to honour. The Panzerkardinal, as the Germans call him, might just make it by default.

Don't worry. I'm only joking!

Paul Collins is an historian and author. He was for many years a Missionary of the Sacred Heart and is a former Director of Religious Programmes at the ABC.

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