Papal intrigue on agenda as cardinals meet in Rome

Extraordinary meeting apt to include next pope

May 20, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Pope John Paul II has summoned the world's cardinals, including Baltimore's William H. Keeler, to Rome this week for an extraordinary gathering that church observers say will likely do little to advance church policy but will be deep in papal intrigue.

For one thing, the next pope will likely be in the room.

The three-day meeting that begins tomorrow at the Vatican marks the sixth such meeting, known as an extraordinary consistory, in Pope John Paul's 23-year papacy and the first of the new millennium. Pope John Paul last convened the cardinals in 1994, when the subject was planning for the church's two-millennium Jubilee Year celebration, which culminated Jan. 6.

The agenda for this consistory is a discussion of the pope's Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineute, At the Beginning of the New Millennium, a wide-ranging document that covers such topics as how to deal with New Age sects, proclaiming the Gospel in a world of religious pluralism, and poverty and globalization.

"This is essentially the grist for the mill: How do we look at all of these things and make them practical?" Keeler said.

But observers say the consistory is so short and its agenda too broad to accomplish much of substance.

"With that kind of sweeping agenda, it's going to be difficult for the cardinals to come up with anything concrete," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America. "I think most of the discussion will be very theological and not get much into practical recommendations."

Besides, most cardinals are loath to give advice to the pontiff for fear it could be construed as criticism.

"It's difficult. The pope calls them for advice, and from past experience, we know they spend most of the time quoting the pope to himself," said Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican."

But the consistory will be a useful opportunity for many of the older members of the College of Cardinals to size up its newer members. "The most important thing about this consistory is that it will give a large number of the cardinals, those who will be under 80 and voting in the next conclave, a chance to rub shoulders with people who they have heard about but never met and take their measure of them," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a University of Notre Dame theologian and papal historian.

"When anybody gets up to speak, the other cardinals are going to say in back of their mind, `Would this man make a good pope? Would he go over in my country or my diocese?'" Reese said. "There's going to be a lot of looking each other over during this consistory in preparation for the conclave, whenever that will take place."

There will not be any open lobbying - Vatican custom holds that anyone openly desiring the post disqualifies himself. Front-runners are customarily shot down. There is a well-known saying: "The man who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal."

But there are several men whom Vatican watchers, notably the world press, consider "papabili," men who would be pope. Some believe that after such a long pontificate, the conclave will take a cautious course, choosing an older man and possibly returning the papacy to an Italian.

The names of several non-Italian Europeans are circulating. Cardinals Walter Kasper, 68, and Karl Lehmann, 65, both Germans, are respected theologians with moderate backgrounds. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, at 56, could be considered too young but received high marks for his handling of a sex scandal in his diocese. Belgium's Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 66, is one of Europe's most influential churchmen.

Then there is the possibility of a pope from the developing world. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, 69, who leads the Vatican's efforts at interreligious dialogue, has been frequently mentioned as papabili.

There is increasing speculation that the next pope could come from Latin America, where 40 percent of the world's Catholics live. Prominent mention has been made of Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 58, of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who was elevated in February.

Considered a champion for social justice, he could get a big boost from Latin Americans in the College of Cardinals. They represent 20 percent of the cardinals eligible to vote for pope, more than the Italian contingent at 17 percent.

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