Popular in the developing world, John Paul II is a liability for Catholicism in the west. Will the new Pope be liberal or conservative, Italian or, even, black?by Tobias Jones / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is supposed to happen once every decade or two. It happened, amazingly, twice in 1978, but never since then. It is so rare that it has given rise to an Italian phrase-equivalent to “once in a blue moon”-“every death of a Pope.”
The rare event is, though, undeniably near at hand. In recent months the Italian press has been anxiously reporting on the health of John Paul II, and quietly pondering who his successor might be. Most nights on Italian television we are treated to the sad spectacle of the pontiff, shaking with Parkinson’s, leaning heavily on his staff. He can barely manage to raise his head, which only makes him look more stern as he stares at people through his white eyebrows. When he speaks, his Italian-boomed out through public speakers-is so slurred it is hard to understand.
This year, for the first time in his pontificate, Karol Wojtyla was unable to join the Easter procession, or to participate in the traditional washing and kissing of the feet of other priests. There have been health scares before (in the last ten years, he has had a colon tumour removed, broken his femur and had his appendix removed) but, by now, his suffering is such that one cardinal, the Honduran Oscar Maradiaga, has even mooted the idea of a Papal resignation.
In Italy, the papal succession holds the fascination that, say, a coronation has in Britain, with the difference that, in Rome, no one knows who is about to sit on the throne, nor even who the possible candidates are, since there is no open campaigning. Moreover, it’s hard to guess at what the “election issues” might be. In the last few months, however, Vatican-watchers have been trying to understand what might happen when Wojtyla dies. How will he be remembered? How will his successor be elected? What does the future hold for an institution which has, over the last two decades, become ever more conservative and centralised, remaining almost medieval in the face of modernity? Ab…