In a Vatican meeting, Pope Benedict XVI’s words were momentous, so momentous that they flashed around the world in minutes. They shocked Vatican insiders and ordinary Catholics alike, as they realized that it really was true that Pope Benedict had resigned, the first pope for 600 years to do so. The Pope’s increasing frailty and obvious fatigue has worried Catholics, and speculation about a possible successor was evident in 2012. However, this was because Catholics felt that perhaps God would call Pope Benedict to higher service, rather than because anyone guessed that he would abdicate. A pope, called to the papacy, serves as “God’s rock” until death.
The papal election in 2013 will be peculiar, since the Cardinals’ conclave usually meets after the funeral of the previous pope and because Pope Benedict steps down so quickly, at the end of February. The Vatican says that the new pope will be enthroned by Easter; one wonders whether Pope Benedict’s timing is deliberate. Easter is a time of renewal for all Christians, especially for Catholics, and enthroning a new pope at Easter will be highly symbolic. Speculation as to the likely candidate for the next pope is at fever pitch with newspapers both secular and Catholic vying with television reporters all over the world trying to second-guess whom the conclave will choose.
The cardinals know that the next pope faces many problems, such as the aftermath of the pedophile priests, the fact that Catholicism inside Europe is a minority faith and that Catholics in Africa and Latin America are clamouring for the church to change its Eurocentric outlook and look at the problems that are important to them. The next pope will need good communication skills to communicate the Catholic view and faith to the world.
Some touted candidates for the papacy are front-runners and others are outside chances. The conclave may, or may not, choose one of the fancied candidates. It would not be the first time that the conclave has surprised the church by choosing an unexpected candidate.
One hundred and seventeen cardinals form the conclave. The cardinals are over-whelmingly western, 62 Europeans and 17 North Americans. They may want to elect someone like themselves, and this may count against a candidate from the developing world. However, the cardinals are well aware that the Church is growing in Latin America and Africa and may surprise everyone and elect an African or Latin American cardinal to the papacy.
Ladbrokes and other bookmakers gave odds of 4/1 on Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson (64) of Ghana becoming the first African pope; immediately after Pope Benedict’s resignation many commentators tipped him as a favourite for the papacy. However, he since made unwise comments in the media, some which the conclave might construe as electioneering. Traditionally, popes show reluctance, rather than excitement, at the thought of ascending to the greatest responsibility in the Church. Unwise comments to the media indicate a tendency towards impulsiveness, speaking without thought for the wider implications and lack of judgment.
Cardinal Ouillet (68) of Quebec, Canada was another early favourite who has possibly fallen by the wayside. Quebec, once the most Catholic of places, has steadily become more secular. The church in Cardinal Ouillet’s own village is now a community centre, where an elderly priest holds Mass every second Sunday for a congregation of 20 people. It is unlikely that the Conclave will elect a cardinal who could not even fight secularism in his own home village. However, he is close to the Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, and that may weigh in his favour, or not.
Francis Arinze is Nigerian and hotly tipped to win, and runner up to Pope Benedict in 2005. He is a good communicator and leads the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the body handling the Church’s relationship with other faiths. Arinze’s ability to communicate outside the Catholic faith and his personal skills recommend him to the Conclave. However, the mere fact that he was runner-up to Pope Benedict may weigh against him. In addition, he is over eighty, and the Conclave will want to elect a younger pope in view of recent events. and a very unlikely candidate.
There are, as always, several Italian contenders, but John Paul II was Polish and Pope Benedict XVI, German. The Catholic Church needs to appeal to the world beyond Italy, especially those areas of the world where Catholicism is strong. For the cardinals to choose an Italian would send the wrong message to the World. Although Italians would like to see an Italian on St. Peter’s throne, cardinals of other nationalities would see this as a retrograde step. It is unlikely too that a North American would be acceptable to the Italian cardinals in the conclave. However, a Latin American Pope is a strong possibility.
Catholicism is still growing in Latin America. Cardinals Bergoglio and Sandri from Argentina are tipped as possible candidates. However, Cardinal Bergoglio is a Jesuit. The church hierarchy mistrust Jesuits as almost a cult within the Church. The Argentinian Church’s inaction during the years when military dictatorship caused thousands to disappear and die, and Cardinal Bergoglio’s own apparent inaction when two priests disappeared, would seem to rule him out. Cardinal Bergoglio’s health might render him unsuitable to undertake the papacy’s onerous duties.
Cardinal Sandri is another Argentinian; at 70 he is the right age and in good health. He was born in Argentina to parents with Italian ancestry, which might appease Italian cardinals. However, his current job overseeing the Eastern churches is not very powerful and he has little pastoral experience. However, he was Substitute for General Affairs in the Secretariat of State, effectively second-in-command of the Catholic Church, under John Paul II.
Brazil is Argentina’s neighbour and has the largest number of Catholics of any country in the world. Archbishop of Sao Paulo Odilo Scherer is 63 and in good health. He is German-Brazilian and also holds impressive Vatican credentials and worked at the congregation of bishops there. He could satisfy both Europeans and Latin-Americans and could be the ideal compromise candidate.
A wild card candidate is Luis Tagle, Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines, an Archdiocese containing 2.8 million Catholics. At 53, he is by far the youngest candidate, and to many this would apparently disqualify him from the papacy. He has only been a cardinal since November 2012, and this seems to disqualify him, but he has other qualities that the Conclave might find appealing. He frequently broadcasts in the Philippines and has a Facebook page and the common touch. He once rode a cheap bicycle to a deprived Manila neighbourhood to cover for a colleague and frequently invites beggars outside his cathedral to share a meal with him.
Whilst everyone is wildly speculating as to which, if any, of the candidates the Conclave will choose, the answer will only come when white smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The Conclave may yet surprise everyone and choose an outsider or someone that no one has considered. Although since the fourteenth century the cardinals have chosen cardinals for the papacy, nothing in the rules says that they must. They could choose any baptized male Catholic. What is certain is that the chosen candidate, because of the two-thirds majority required, will be a compromise candidate.