Divining God's will
As Pope John Paul II drives himself through another foreign tour, Catholics are preparing for the inevitable. GRAHAM REID looks at how his successor will be elected and at some of the candidates.
Eventually the people waiting outside the new palace in Viterbo, north of Rome, grew impatient. This was dragging on too long.
Behind the walls 15 cardinals were trying to choose a new Pope, but the conclave was divided into French and Italian factions, neither able to wrestle the necessary two-thirds majority.
As the throne of St Peter remained vacant, drastic measures became necessary to hurry along God's decision-makers. First the cardinals' food rations were curtailed, then portions of the palazzo's roof removed so the vagaries of the weather might beat down urgency upon the wise heads inside.
Finally a compromise was brokered and Theobald Visconti, archdeacon of Liege, was chosen as the new Pope. It was 1271 and, until his consecration as Pope Gregory X on March 27, the papacy had been vacant for almost three years, the longest conclave of cardinals in history.
In modern times conclaves have reached a result with mercifully more haste, but for the outside world the result has been no less anticipated.
These days attention traditionally centres on a chimney near the Sistine Chapel from which the smoke of burning ballot papers relays the result. White smoke means the new Pope has been chosen, black smoke means the waiting must go on.
Matters of papal succession are now understandably preoccupying many in the Catholic world.
Arriving in Armenia this week on the 95th foreign tour of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II trembled. Aides rushed to comfort him. As he was halfway through his speech in the Apostolic Cathedral his hands shook, seemingly uncontrollably.
A priest finished reading the prepared text as the Pope sat slumped on a throne on the cathedral's altar. An aide wiped his face.
As so often before, he appeared to rebound later in the day. When he visited the residence of the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, he seemed in good spirits and waved his cane in the air.
But he is 81 and increasingly frail. Some say his intellect is undiminished, but others tell of his difficulty concentrating and note that in private he speaks Polish, his birth language, more and more. His mortality is reinforced with every television image.
"The jokes about the Pope outliving us all are over," one insider told the Guardian newspaper. "He could go tonight."
That was two years ago.
Given that, subtle preparations are being made as cardinals discreetly look among themselves at the candidates for succession. The Guardian noted, however, "As death-watches go, the Vatican is more subtle than most. No cabals huddle in marble corridors discussing tactics. There is no rubber-chicken circuit. Yet, subterranean and imperceptible, the campaigning is under way."
Bishops gossip but "it's always been a rule there should not be lobbying", says Cardinal Tom Williams, Archbishop of Wellington.
"To the best of my knowledge there's no canvassing for votes and no lobbying for preferred candidates. But human nature being what it is ... However, there are no nominations and putting forward the merits of each one as in a caucus."
As a cardinal, Williams may be one of those in the next conclave in the Sistine Chapel, "providing I don't go to God myself".
Changes to the nature of the conclave this year have made an always unpredictable election even more difficult to read.
In February, Pope John Paul II elevated another 44 as princes of the Catholic Church, so expanding the College of Cardinals to 185, the largest it has been. Of these, 133 are younger than 80 and so eligible to vote for the next Pope.
All adult Catholic males are eligible for the position, but it is highly likely, possibly even certain, that he who next holds the keys to the Kingdom will be drawn from among the cardinals.
This large group includes representatives of the diverse opinions within the Catholic Church, from liberals to conservatives, from old-world European white to politicised African black.
But what was significant about the recently elevated 44 was that 11 were from Latin America. Now 20 per cent of cardinals are Latin American, making this the biggest voting bloc within the conclave. Italians, traditionally the largest single group, make up slightly less than 18 per cent.
But while such a change reflects the Church's contemporary demographic, it is not necessarily relevant within a conclave, says Williams.
"Conclaves are simply not possible to read from that point of view. I could do analysis on the basis of country of origin, the kind of work the cardinals have been engaged in, I could think of their ages and theological positions - and I'd be quite sure to get nowhere near the answer."
Observers of the papacy, however, have noted the college has become incrementally more conservative.
More than 85 per cent of the cardinals were appointed by Pope John Paul II, who has barred nuns and priests from work with gays and lesbians, published edicts against birth control, been firmly against women priests and abortion, and has held the line on remarriage after divorce and celibacy in the priesthood.
Archaic as all that may sound in the 21st century, he is doing exactly what any Catholic would do in his position, says Father Thomas Reese, editor of the US Catholic weekly America. "As a result, although there may be differences in styles and personalities, there will be continuity between him and the next Pope."
Again, not necessarily so, says Williams. It's one thing to pick bishops and then from their ranks cardinals, but to assume they wouldn't change their opinions over time would be a mistake.
Many note that John Paul II was perceived as a moderate but is now characterised in many circles as a conservative. Whatever he is, he will be a hard act to follow.
Michael Fitzsimons, former editor of the New Zealand Catholic newspaper Zealandia, says John Paul II is already seen as a historic Pope.
He is unique in that he comes from Eastern Europe - he was born Karol Wojtyla, in Wadowice, Poland - and grew up in the crucible of 20th century politics of Nazism, communism and the Holocaust. He ascended to the throne of St Peter and witnessed the dissolution of the socialist republics. He is a modern European man in that he possesses a remarkable facility with language.
Through that - and his understanding of media-genic gestures such as the kissing of tarmacs - he has communicated on a global level. When he became Pope he was 58, physically tough, looked like a lock forward and was a keen downhill skier. He survived an assassination attempt in St Peter's Square in 1981 and, despite his deteriorating condition, is perceived as morally strong.
And he has been a potent symbol of the papacy. Fitzsimons notes that the power of his appearance at the Auckland Domain in 1979 lay not in what he said but in his sheer presence.
His symbolic forgiveness of the man who tried to assassinate him resonated on a human level, and his papacy has been characterised by his constant travel, important political gestures (his visit to a synagogue in Rome, letters to US President George Bush sen and Iraq's Saddam Hussein in an effort to stop the Gulf War) and acts of simple human kindness.
He has also canonised more than 300 saints and was responsible for the first rewrite of the Catholic catechism in more than 300 years.
Britain's New Statesman called him "a spiritual Superman". There is no doubt that, although enfeebled, he still possesses enormous personal charisma and is the church's best crowd-puller.
He has been to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, has met Fidel Castro, George W. Bush and most other political leaders, and conspicuously (forgivably even) nodded off in a recent Bob Dylan concert.
By virtue of circumstance, he presided over the 2000 jubilee year and, like it or not, his conservatism effectively denounced and curtailed important Liberation Theology movements (Marxism meets Catholicism) in South America.
Yes, despite being greeted with "Chi e?" (Who's he?) by the expectant Italian crowd in St Peter's Square almost 23 years ago, John Paul II will be a hard act to follow.
With the expanded College of Cardinals, the church has plenty of candidates to choose from. However, that large, and some have suggested unwieldy, number of cardinals may make for a protracted, and perhaps even deadlocked, conclave.
And no one wants another Viterbo.
To mitigate against that possibility, in 1996 John Paul II changed the conclave rules for the necessary majority. For the first 12 or 13 days the winner must have the traditional two-thirds plus one vote (the one to account for candidates who vote for themselves), but after that the conclave can choose to adopt a simple majority rule.
And all the while the world will wait for the ritual of the smoke signals, an emblem of how little Catholic traditions change in the face of modern life.
But how do these elderly gentlemen from far-flung corners of the planet, each seeing the disparate Catholic world from their own vantage point, know who to vote for?
Williams says they will have met many of their peers previously and the "sixth extraordinary consistory" in May in Rome - 155 international cardinals called together by the Pope, ostensibly to map out prospects for the church in the third millennium - was widely characterised as a pre-conclave.
"I got no impression of that, however," says Williams, "but it was certainly an opportunity to meet the new ones. That's how we form our impressions, and from reading articles and reviews.
"You do your homework. I have a couple of books with photos of cardinals and their biographies and something by them in their own words and what they stand for."
Some of the candidates will be immediately excluded by virtue of personality or ethical persuasion.
The new Pope will need to be a scholar steeped in the history of the church, but also a man of this era. John Paul II, as a frequent flyer for the faith, has set the expectation of a Pope being a universal pastor prepared to be a travelling salesman.
He will need to be media-conscious and possess a world view, and be able to bridge the gap between Europe (where the church is on the decline) and the growth regions of South America and Africa.
He will have to face the rise of dangerous religious fundamentalism of all kinds, and now intolerance driven by recent tragic events in the United States. It might be useful if he spoke Arabic.
At a more prosaic level, age is also an issue. If the conclave doesn't want to repeat this two-decade reign - longer than all but five of his 264 predecessors - the relative youth of frontrunners such as Dionigi Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Genoa, and Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, might work against them. They are in their mid-60s and 50s respectively.
If the conclave does acknowledge the emergence and power of Latin America, Dario Castrillon Hoyos from Colombia must be considered in with a chance.
Archbishop of Bologna Giacomo Biffi is a hardline conservative, if the church decides to pull a tight rein, and Carlo Maria Martini, the liberal archbishop of Milan, is a contender if the grip is loosened. The Rev Roberto Tucci, a priest who hasn't received the bishop's cloak, heads Vatican Radio and John Paul II is especially fond of him. That may, or may not, count.
Other papal favourites include the Brazilian Lucas Moreira Neves, who is a strident opponent of birth control, the Italian Camillo Ruini, and the Belgian Jan Schotte.
There are others with an outside chance: Francis Arinze is considered suitably conservative, charismatic and charming. If elected, the Nigerian would be widely considered the church's first black Pope. But that wouldn't be true. Historians would cite St Victor I (189-199AD, who established the date for the celebration of Easter), St Militiades (311-314) and St Gelasius I (492-496) as black Popes.
While no one would discount Archbishop of Prague Miloslav Vlk, the likelihood of two Slavic Popes in a row seems improbable. When John Paul II was announced, the Vatican master of ceremonies couldn't pronounce his Polish name as he introduced him from the papal balcony. Maybe "Vlk" would be too tough a call.
All this, of course, is just idle speculation and the old adage will probably remain true: he who enters the conclave as the next Pope will come out as a cardinal.
But the wisdom or otherwise of bookies and pope-makers can be confounded by something that the secular world conspicuously fails to consider. No speculation can take into account divine intervention.
Williams says when the whole of the conclave, after prayer and contemplation, is moved to support one particular person by acclamation, that would be regarded as the body being divinely inspired.
And that is something beyond the comprehension of mortal man.
Only one thing is certain. Regardless of how long the cardinals take this time, no one is going to suggest removing the roof of the Sistine Chapel to hurry them along.