Pope's health sparks succession questions

October 03, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

After nearly 16 years of globe-trotting vitality, even surviving the bullets of a would-be assassin, it has come to this for Pope John Paul II: Only with a helping hand can the leader of the world's 950 million Roman Catholics kneel to pray.

On Wednesday, in presiding over his most recent public audience in the auditorium next to St. Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul again showed why skeptics have begun to whisper about inevitable decline and papal succession.

As the customarily packed crowd of several thousand pilgrims and admirers applauded loudly, he shuffled slowly across the stage. As he reached the four steps to the platform holding his chair, the applause hesitated for a moment. Holding his left side up with a cane, the pontiff halted, unable to climb the step without a boost from an aide on his right. As he finally reached the top step, the crowd roared in apparent relief. He spent the rest of the proceeding seated in his large chair, occasionally reading aloud in a halting voice from a scripted address.

The pontiff's reign has reached a pivotal moment. If he indeed is suffering only a relapse of a problem from hip replacement surgery in April, as Vatican press officials insist, then he should be back to his old pace by year's end. If not, close observers of the Vatican say, then his papacy will continue to slow down, deepening worries about his health and stirring talk of possible successors.

The wheels of speculation began to turn almost the moment he stepped off the papal plane three weeks ago in Zagreb, Croatia. After Vatican press statements boasting of a rigorous recovery, he emerged as a pale, shaky presence.

Ten days ago, the turning of the wheels accelerated, when the Vatican announced that for health reasons Pope John Paul was canceling his October visit to New York, New Jersey and Baltimore.

"Zagreb was an eye-opener to a lot of people," said Raymond L. Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a longtime admirer of the pope.

Mr. Flynn is among those who, having met recently with Pope John Paul, believe the Vatican explanation, although Mr. Flynn thinks that a combination of age, past health problems and frustration may also be catching up with the pope.

"He's 74 years old," Mr. Flynn said. "He's had the falls, an assassination attempt and a tumor operation [in July 1992]. . . . I think he's still trying to do everything he was once able to do, and the suggestion that he has to slow down is something that really [adversely] affects him."

Whatever the state of the pontiff's health, the wheels set in motion within the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia, won't easily be braked.

"There are people inside the Vatican who are trying to begin a campaign for succession," said Marco Politi, longtime Vatican correspondent for Rome's La Repubblica newspaper. Mr. Politi is working on a biography of Pope John Paul II (one of at least four biographies in progress) with U.S. journalist Carl Bernstein.

The ground rules for these premature and underground campaigns can be tricky. "Never forget that this is not a lay political society," Mr. Politi said. "You never have somebody campaigning directly for himself."

Would-be leaders tend to emerge from cardinals who speak up at important synods or other gatherings. "They all know each other fairly well, and some make a reputation for themselves as being men who are on the ball," said one Vatican insider.

From that point, supporters take over on their own initiative, spreading the word for their favorites and occasionally poisoning the well for those they dislike.

Enough such activity has already been stirring to create an air of an approaching sports competition in some quarters of the European press. The European, a weekly newspaper similar in tone and depth to USA Today, recently posted odds on reputed top prospects.

The 6-to-4 favorite was the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who had already been dubbed the front-runner by London's Guardian newspaper even though he's a Jesuit, a member of a group considered to be out of favor with the current papacy. Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, from Emilia, Romania, was listed at 3-to-1.

With Pope John Paul having broken a 455-year succession of Italian popes -- as a Pole, he is the first Slavic pope -- handicappers are also looking abroad. Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria is listed as a 7-to-1 shot. He would be the first black pope. Others see Lucas Moreira Cardinal Neves of Brazil as a contender. No American is considered even a remote possibility.

The only thing certain about the successor is that Pope John Paul will have a major impact on the choice. Like a president who extends his influence into the future by packing the Supreme Court, Pope John Paul has appointed the vast majority of the College of Cardinals -- 98 out of 136.

Stacking the college

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