Looking for a new pope

During the week between the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation and his departure for Castel Gandolfo on 28 February, the pope and some of his cardinals were on their Lenten retreat. This is an annual time of prayer and reflection during the lead-up to Easter. Each year the pope chooses an important figure to lead the Vatican’s retreat.

This year the invitation went to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an Italian from the northern province of Lecco. Ravasi’s retreat and its effect on his audience could well have determined his chances of becoming the next pope.

Ravasi is a brilliant biblical scholar, one of the best brains in the Vatican. He is the man behind the highly successful “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project in which prominent Christians discuss with equally prominent non-believers the subject of belief. So far successful meetings have been held in Paris, Bucharest, Tirana and Stockholm. Ravasi, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is the inspiration behind the Vatican’s decision to have its first-ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious contemporary art gathering. He is the first appointed member of the Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation and seems to pack an audience wherever he speaks. He has famously said that today’s preaching is often boring and irrelevant, and he recommends and uses tweeting to communicate the Christian story. His Twitter accounts are @CardRavasi and @CardRavasi_en.

However when he was considered last year for the vacant archbishopric of Milan, Europe’s largest diocese, he didn’t get the job. Instead it went to Cardinal Angelo Scola, largely thanks to his record as the Patriarch of Venice. Milan and Venice are historically seen as stepping-stones to the papacy. Both Ravasi and Scola could probably bring new order to the fractious and messy Vatican government – or Curia – which is known to have sapped the energy of the outgoing pope.

Another European possible, or papabile, is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna. He, more than most, knows the difficulties facing Roman Catholic clergy today. Lack of vocations, the sex-abuse scandals, excessive centralisation of decision-making in Rome, celibacy, the treatment of gays, the side-lining of women: these are all problems he has been facing in his dealings with the activist Austrian Priests’ Initiative. This vocal and increasingly powerful protest group is similar to other clerical reform movements in Ireland and the United States.

Most people will however agree that Europe is no longer the heartland of Christianity. So the 115 cardinal electors may be looking for a pope from Africa, Latin America or the Far East. Two candidates from Africa stand out. Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana is popular among prelates and laity alike, is well known in Rome, has been a cardinal for ten years and is head of the important Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. Cardinal John Onaiyekan from Nigeria has only been a cardinal for a few months but he has first-hand experience battling military dictatorships and terrorism. Onaiyekan comes from a country with a 50-50 per cent Christian/Muslim population and is the only papabile with day-to-day experience of inter-faith dialogue with Muslim leaders. At the end of January, just days before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, Onaiyekan was named a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the department Cardinal Ratzinger headed for so many years before becoming pope in 2005.

With a South American agenda in mind, two candidates stand out. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine of Italian heritage, has a long career in the Vatican but little hands-on knowledge of leading a diocese. Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer (a Brazilian of German extraction) is the archbishop of S. Paolo, one of the world’s largest dioceses, and has been both a rector of a seminary and a parish priest. He, like Schönborn, knows the day-to-day problems of the clergy and their congregations.

The United States has considerable voting influence in the conclave (it is the country with the highest number of votes after Italy – 11 votes to Italy’s 28) but it is short on home-grown candidates. One of its voting cardinals, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles until 2011, has recently been removed from all his offices by his successor, the new archbishop of LA, for covering up sex abuse cases in the 1980s. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is pushing hard for the job, is politically savvy and gets plenty of US media coverage. The name of Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley is now circulating with increasing frequency even in the Italian media. His simple Franciscan lifestyle is in stark contrast to that of the New York cardinal.

A man with knowledge of the Church in both North and Latin America is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a French Canadian, who has worked in Colombia, is archbishop of Quebec, and has Vatican know-how thanks to his position as head of the Congregation of Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

Turning to the Far East, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, primate of the Philippines, is a possible pope. Although he is only 55 he has worked in Rome under both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. He has pastoral experience as archbishop of Manila and was made a cardinal a few months ago.

Might the cardinals look for someone outside the conclave? The rules allow it, and the resignation of Benedict shows that tradition can be broken. One outsider with the right credentials is the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. He has been fearless in his challenges to the hierarchy in Ireland to root out, clean up and reform. Irish missionaries are responsible for the growth of the Catholic Church in almost every country in the world. Could this then be the right moment for an Irish pope?

Mary Wilsey

The Conclave.

117 cardinals were eligible to vote – those under the age of 80 the day the papacy becomes vacant. But one ruled himself out for health reasons, and another, the Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, because of the clerical sex abuse scandal. From the time the 115 cardinal electors go into the conclave on Tuesday 12 March to elect the new pope they are forbidden to communicate with the outside world. They live in the Domus S. Marta to the left of St Peter’s and go to the Sistine Chapel to the right of the basilica each day to vote. On the first day there is one voting session in the afternoon. On each subsequent day there are two sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon. At the end of each morning and afternoon session the ballot papers are burnt. If the smoke from the Sistine Chapel is black it means that the vote is inconclusive; if it is white it means there is a new pope. The pope is elected on a two-thirds majority. If no-one is elected in three days there is a day off for reflection and prayer and then the voting starts again.

Published in the paper edition of Wanted in Rome, 6 March 2013