VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation opens the door to an array of possible successors, from the conservative cardinal of Milan to a contender from Ghana and several Latin Americans. But don’t count on a radical change of course for the Catholic Church: Benedict appointed the majority of cardinals who will choose his successor from within their own ranks.
There’s no clear front-runner, though several leading candidates have been mentioned over the years as “papabile” – or having the qualities of a pope.
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So, will the papacy return to Italy, after three decades of a Polish and a German pope?
Or does Latin America, which counts some 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, deserve one of their own at the church’s helm?
Will a younger cardinal be considered, now that future popes can feel freer to resign?
Or will it again go to an experienced cardinal for another “transitional” papacy?
The 110-plus cardinals who are younger than 80 and eligible to vote will weigh those questions and more when they sequester themselves next month in the Sistine Chapel to choose Benedict’s successor. The conclave likely will produce a new pope by Easter.
Some said Benedict’s resignation presents an opportunity to turn to Africa or Latin America, where Catholicism is more vibrant.
“Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” said Monsignor Antonio Marto, the bishop of Fatima, Portugal. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America, where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith. ... Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents.”
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa agreed.
“I think we would have a better chance of getting someone outside of the Northern Hemisphere this time because there are some really promising cardinals from other parts of the world,” he said.
Despite that enthusiasm, more than half of those eligible to vote in the College of Cardinals hail from Europe, giving the continent an edge even though there’s no rule that cardinals vote according to their geographic blocs.
It’s also likely the next pope won’t radically alter the church’s course, though surprises are possible.
“Given the preponderance of cardinals appointed by popes John Paul and Benedict, it is unlikely that the next pope will make many radical changes,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “On the other hand, the papacy can change a man, and the Holy Spirit is always ready to surprise.”
A handful of Italians fit the bill, top among them Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan. Scola is close to Benedict, has a fierce intellect and leads the most important archdiocese in Italy; that is no small thing given that Italians still dominate the College of Cardinals.
Scola, 71, donned his bishops’ miter and appeared Monday in Milan’s Duomo to praise Benedict’s “absolutely extraordinary faith and humility.”
“This decision, even though it fills us with surprise – and at first glance it leaves us with many questions – will be, as he said, for the good of the church,” Scola said.
Other leading Italian candidates include Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s culture office and another intellectual heavyweight who quotes Hegel and Neitzsche as easily, and almost as frequently, as the Gospels. He has climbed into the spotlight with his “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project, an initiative to enter into dialogue with the worlds of art, culture, science and – most importantly – atheists.
Veteran Vatican analyst John Allen Jr. has labled Ravasi, 70, as possibly “the most interesting man in the church.” Raising his profile further: Benedict appointed him to lead the Vatican’s spiritual exercises during Lent, giving Ravasi a visible forum in the weeks leading up to the conclave.
Benedict’s onetime theology student, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 68, of Vienna long has been considered to have the stuff of a pope – multilingual, affable and, most important, Benedict’s blessing.
He has been dealing, however, with a difficulties in Vienna, where a revolt of dissident priests has questioned church teachings on everything from women’s ordination to celibacy for priests. His decision to let a gay Catholic serve on a parish council raised eyebrows among some conservatives, who said the move clearly sealed his fate as too liberal for today’s College of Cardinals.
There are a handful of candidates from Latin America – and by Monday their backers were in full force touting their attributes.
“It’s time for there to be a Latin American pope, because Latin America has the greatest number of Christians,” said the Rev. Juan Angel Lopez, spokesman for the Catholic Church of Honduras. His candidate, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, however, is considered too liberal to be elected by such a conservative bloc.
Other leading Latin American possibilities include Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the 63-year-old archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, head of the Vatican’s office for Eastern rite churches. Sandri earned fame as the “voice” of Pope John Paul II when the pontiff lost the ability to speak because of Parkinson’s disease.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican, currently heading the Vatican’s office for justice and peace. But he is prone to gaffes and is considered something of a wild card.
Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, is a rising star in the church. But at 56 and having only been named a cardinal last year, he is considered too young.
North America has a few candidates, though the Americans are considered long shots. They include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative and the Vatican’s top judge.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Oeullet is a contender, earning the respect of his colleagues as head of the Vatican’s office for bishops, a tough and important job vetting the world’s bishops.
No “radical transformation” is expected in the direction of the church, said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who studies the church. A “tweak” here and there would be more likely than an overhaul.
“The church obviously is well regarded for its continuity,” Dillon said. “I’m not personally expecting a transformative change, but change is always possible.”