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Cardinals Now Must Ponder the Unspoken

October 22, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — A weak Pope John Paul II on Tuesday installed 30 new cardinals, setting the tone and agenda of the Roman Catholic elite that will eventually select his successor.

In a poignant, regal ceremony, during which the pope appeared to wipe away a tear, men from 22 countries one by one accepted the scarlet hat of their new status, then kissed the pontiff's ring amid intense speculation over the 83-year-old John Paul's health and his ability to continue in power.

The gathering, which took place in St. Peter's Square, is known as a consistory and is normally held every three years. The pope moved this meeting up by several months, a signal to many that he may feel time is running out.

With that move comes an inevitable and very subtle process of reconnaissance, by cardinals assessing one another and by Vatican watchers handicapping the potential candidates. Two things are true in the papal race: It is next to impossible to predict with certainty who will emerge as the next pope, and the best candidate is he who does not appear to be one.

Because this may well be John Paul's last consistory, the next pope is almost certainly among the men who gathered here Tuesday. With the new additions, the College of Cardinals has swelled to record size: 194 active members, of whom 135 are younger than 80 and therefore eligible to take part in a secret meeting to choose a new pope, approximately 15 to 20 days after John Paul dies. For more than 600 years, the cardinals have always chosen one of their own to head the church.

It is considered unseemly, and is in fact prohibited, for the cardinals to speak about succession while the current pope lives. Ask, and they say they await the Holy Spirit to guide their hand and thoughts. Still, in a series of interviews over the last few days, it was clear that the future was very much on the minds of the church leaders.

The most important part of the cardinals' job "is electing a new pope," Keith O'Brien, 65, of Scotland told reporters on the eve of his promotion to cardinal. "We don't know whether that will be in one month or in five years."

Because so many cardinals have been appointed relatively recently and because their group is now so large, the consistory has served as an important opportunity for many of them to begin sizing up one another, weighing whether each might be good pope material.

"We are getting to know each other more and more," Antonio Jose Gonzalez Zumarraga of Ecuador, a cardinal since early 2001, said in an interview. He added that he thought John Paul was preparing for a smooth transition.

"We are seeing the Holy Father falling more and more ill," Gonzalez Zumarraga said. "There is an awareness that change could be imminent. Among both the new and the previous cardinals, we are increasingly willing to make ourselves ready and obedient to the Holy Spirit."

Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, said talk of papal succession was simply not part of his colleagues' discussions except "maybe some cardinal or another, over a digestivo some night."

In Tuesday's ceremony, the pope smiled frequently and seemed pleased with his selections.

Each new cardinal knelt before him and received a three-horned hat known as a biretta, borne on a sterling silver tray. John Paul was unable to place the hats on the cardinals' heads, handing them instead to each man.

He also was unable to read aloud his homily, or the names of the new "princes of the church," as the cardinals are known.

"Enriched by its new members, the College of Cardinals reflects ever more the diversity of races and cultures that characterize the Christian people," said the remarks prepared for the pope but read by an aide.

John Paul reminded the group that the scarlet color of their hats and new robes signifies blood, the willingness of the cardinals to make the ultimate sacrifice.

He also exhorted them to resist "every temptation of career and personal benefit."

A 31st cardinal was inducted in secret, apparently because of religious persecution in his home country. His name has not been revealed.

As it looks to its future, the church will have to confront its many divisions, its quickly shifting demographics, the challenges from other religions and the corrosive inequities of the new world economic order. Consequently, there has been ample speculation that the next pope could come from the Third World, a region such as Latin America, for example, where the number of Catholics is growing but so is poverty, and where the church faces threats from Protestant evangelical movements.

As Gonzalez Zumarraga noted, Latin Americans now make up the second-largest bloc of cardinals, after Europe. And they outnumber by one the Italians.

"Surely that will have an influence," said the 78-year-old Ecuadorean.

Among the papabili, or potential popes, one of the Latins being mentioned by Vatican watchers is Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, the country with the most Catholics.

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