April 15, 2005

Pontification On Possible Popes

Sorry, folks, I couldn't help myself there. Some titles are just too obvious to resist.

I came across a couple of great articles on the upcoming conclave, and another on the history of the current selection process that I think might interest folks.

1) Conclave History. Where did we get this process of selecting popes? At one time, the people of Rome selected their new bishop (remember -- besides being the head of the entire Catholic Church, the pope is first and foremost the local bishop of the city of Rome) by public acclamation. That is how Peter's successor, Linus, was selected. The selection of a new pope by the cardinals was an innovation of the 11th century. Even as late as 1903, the article points out, the papacy was a political plum, and the selection of a new pontiff was as much a matter of international politics as it was of religion.

And, of course, there have been scandals and outrageous acts by popes and papal candidates. The Middle Ages and Renaissance were particularly notorious for odd goings on.

Nineteen elections lasted more than a month and several dragged on for many months, even years. Other successions descended into violence.

Consider the reign of Pope Sergius III in the 10th century.

His faction seized the papacy through armed force, and he had his imprisoned predecessor, Pope Leo V, strangled to death.

Chroniclers of the age claimed that Sergius had a son with a 15-year-old girl - who was later elected Pope John XII by the nobles who had backed Sergius. John himself became a notorious debaucher who was deposed, struck back and deposed his successor, and supposedly died while in bed with a married woman.

Then there was Alexander VI, who won the papacy just before the Protestant Reformation by bribing cardinals and promising lucrative jobs. His subsequent reign was ``marked by nepotism, greed and unbridled sensuality,'' the Rev. Richard McBrien writes in ``Lives of the Popes.''

Thanks to Alexander, the cardinals who elected his successor included his illegitimate son, appointed a cardinal at age 18, and the brother of one of the pope's mistresses.

Perhaps the most bizarre succession involved the ``cadaver synod'' of 897.

So much did Pope Stephen VI hate his deceased predecessor, Pope Formosus, that Stephen had his minions dig up Formosus' corpse. The new pope then held a mock trial for the old one, stripped the corpse of its vestments, cut off the two fingers that bestowed papal blessings and threw the body into the Tiber.

The over-the-top display did Stephen no good. His enemies rebelled, imprisoned him and strangled him to death.

And we cannot forget the period of French control of the papacy at Avignon, nor the multiple popes and anti-popes of the Great Schism.

The modern papacy, freed of the temporal concerns that existed when the popes ruled the Papal States, is now much more a spiritual and moral force in the world. The unification of Italy may have been one of the best things that ever happened to the successors of St. Peter, and they now only needed to be concerned with running the Church.

2) The Importance Of Papal Language Skills. I'd have to say that John Paul II made the ability to speak in multiple languages critical for a successful papacy. He was multilingual, and even if his Italian was week in 1978 (or even a quarter century later), his ability to communicate with the people of Italy was important. Let's be honest -- if your entire country is located in downtown Rome and you are the city's bishop, you need to speak Italian.

'Pope John Paul's ability to speak other languages allowed him to make better contacts with world leaders such as Fidel Castro and [Augusto] Pinochet," said Marco Politi, coauthor of ''His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time."

''The ability to speak another language could make the next pope more effective."

The pope's biographers say that in addition to Polish, John Paul could converse in Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin.

But beyond that, English and Spanish are the two major languages of the faithful. Being unable to communicate in those two languages (or at least one of them, initially) will weaken the new pope. And since John Paul II made international travel an important part of the papacy, that linguistic ability is very important. As I remember from Denver, the fact that the pope, not a translator, was speaking to us was very important to the young people there. We understood him, and he understood us.

Will linguistic ability help propel some candidate to the papacy? Probably not -- but it might be a factor for some, such as Cardinals Ivan Dias of India, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. They speak English, French, and Italian, as well as other languages.

3) A Black Pope? Personally, I don't see why not. While some are downplaying the possibility (perhaps as a means of safeguarding the candidacy of Cardinal Arinze or one of the other Africans), I don't know that it would be as big a handicap as some suggest. Africa is the growing Church today. Whereas a century ago the Irish and Americans were sending missionary priests to Africa to preach the Gospel, the opposite is happening today. Many dioceses have African priests working in them to help with the priest shortage. My seminary had 200 students, and about 15 of them came from Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria (I've heard about Cardinal Arinze for years) -- some of whom were here to stay, not to go home.

And Cardinal Arinze himself would be a good candidate. At age 72, he is young enough to be pope for a decade or so, but not so young as to stay a quarter century. And there is the fact that he has spent so much time working in the Vatican that he is practically a Roman.

The leading African candidate is Cardinal Francis Arinze, a 72-year-old Nigerian who has worked at the Vatican for more than 20 years, mostly as the pope's point man for Islamic relations.

While he is not the only African candidate, his combination of Vatican knowledge, theological conservatism, pastoral experience and deep spirituality makes him the favourite.

I would not be surprised to see a black hand bestowing the next papal blessing, though I will not be so bold as to make that a definitive prediction. It's just that the election of Cardinal Arinze would make a lot of sense, as the above quote indicates.

Enough for now. Pray for the holy Spirit to guide the Cardinals, an for the Cardinals to be open to the Spirit.

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