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European Synod II

Five Europeans who could be pope


Over the three weeks of the European synod, one question keeps coming up: Are we looking at the next pope?

It hangs in the air every time a cardinal makes some kind of splash. Many observers here seem convinced that if the next conclave does not opt for an Italian, they will almost certainly go for a European - someone with the right languages and, even more importantly, someone with the cultural savvy to handle the Roman Curia.

There is also the raw political fact that the Europeans, East and West, amount to 46 of the 106 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave if it were held today (at the age of 80, cardinals lose their voting privileges). They thus represent a powerful voting block.

If this analysis is on the money, it means that John Paul III (or John XXIV) is probably among the forty-plus cardinals now gathered in Rome. The trick, of course, is deciding which one.

Among the European cardinals outside Italy, five names seem to surface repeatedly as papabile.


Cardinal Godfried Daneels, archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels

photos by -- Tom Fox

Godfried Daneels of Belgium, 66, would be a favorite of the moderates should Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan falter. A former professor of liturgy at the Catholic University of Louvain, Daneels has a reputation for intelligence and pastoral flexibility. A French journalist who tracks Daneels closely said recently that he is a very cautious figure, but that may appeal to cardinals who feel this papacy has moved too far, too fast, on too many issues.

One question mark about Daneels is his health - in late 1997, he had a very serious heart attack. Others say that Daneels lacks warmth, that he comes alive on a platform but is incapable of the one-on-one backslapping and bonhomie any successful politician must practice.

Many observers, however, feel that Daneels has turned heads at the synod. His intervention, arguing that apparent signs of decline in European Catholicism carry seeds of hope, was a welcome relief from what had been a very bleak tone in the opening days.

During the first week of the synod, Daneels gave a talk at the French national church urging a more compassionate approach to the problem of civil divorce and remarriage. He said access to the sacraments for remarried divorcees is an open question - suggesting that we may need to learn from the Eastern churches, where the sacraments are seen not as a reward for good behavior but as medicine for the soul.

The report from Daneels’ small group was also viewed as the most penetrating of the bunch. On liturgy, it asked the provocative question of whether the loss of a sense of the sacred is not a problem of texts or rites (as supporters of a return to the Latin Mass, for example, argue), but of the modern situation. “Could it be,” the report asked, “that contemporary man might be a homoaliturgicus?”

If one were looking for a papabile whose stock is up here, Daneels would be a good pick.


Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, archbishop of Madrid

Spaniard Antonio Rouco Varela, 63, is another name in play, in large part because John Paul chose him for the most prominent position in the synod. As relator, it fell to Rouco Varela to set the opening tone with a major address outlining the issues, then to deliver another speech at the end of the first round of interventions summarizing what he’s heard.

Some observers feel Rouco Varela fumbled the opening opportunity, describing Europe in such dark and accusatory language as to make the synod seem more like a wake than a celebration of Jesus Christ as the source of hope (he referred, among other things, to a “present situation of hopelessness”). He recovered on the second speech, getting high marks for his synthesis - though it escaped no one’s attention that Rouco Varela could find no room among his 17 summary points for the call for greater collegiality issued by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan.

Rouco Varela earned favor with the pope by organizing a highly successful world youth gathering at Santiago de Compostella when he was archbishop. Rouco Varela has a doctorate in theology and canon law; his dissertation was on church-state relations in 16th century Spain. Most of his teaching career was in canon law, and he has published in the field.

That, many observers say, is the chief argument against Rouco Varela as a candidate: After John Paul II, few electors will want another rigidly legalistic regime. The next pope will probably have to give the church some room to breathe.

Jean-Marie Lustiger, 73, the cardinal of Paris, has appeared on the lists of papabili for some time. In part, it’s because he is an intellectual who has had pastoral success, generating mild growth in vocations - no mean accomplishment in world-weary France. In part, the buzz around Lustiger has to do with the fact that his family background is Jewish, and his election could have tremendous impact (for good or ill) on the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The chief drawback to Lustiger is that he is seen as one of John Paul’s closest disciples within the College of Cardinals. Like Wojtyla, Lustiger emphasizes the spiritual and ascetic dimensions of the priestly office; also like Wojtyla, he is a stickler for orthodoxy. In one of his early acts as archbishop of Paris, he pulled his seminarians out of the Institut Catholique in Paris, calling its theology “too speculative.”

On the theory that the next conclave will be looking for someone who can adjust what they see as the shortcomings of this papacy, Lustiger would probably not be a front-runner given his close identification with the policies of John Paul II. Moreover, at 73 Lustiger is nearing the upper limit of electability. Many observers believe the cardinals would not elect a pope who is already over the mandatory retirement age for bishops of 75 set by Paul VI.

During the synod, Lustiger’s intervention confirmed his reputation for interest in the life of the mind. He spoke on the relationship between theologians and bishops, beginning with the question: “Why do we no longer have fruitful Christian thinking?” He urged bishops to foster good theology through means such as academic centers and public discussions; he also called on theologians not to sever themselves from communities of worship and faith. He said a tight connection between bishops and theologians is essential to evangelizing a secular world.


Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna

Christoph Schönborn, 54, of Vienna, enjoyed a brief period after his appointment as cardinal in 1998 when he appeared on virtually every list of papabili. A Dominican, he served as general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a volume whose surprisingly strong sales impressed everyone. He also won high marks in his first few months as a peacemaker in Austria, where the church had been torn apart by a public sexual misconduct scandal involving his predecessor.

Schönborn comes from an aristocratic background - some 19 members of his family have over the centuries been archbishops, bishops or priests. He is cosmopolitan, speaking several languages well (including English), and has traveled widely.

In the last several months, however, many feel Schönborn has taken himself out of the running through a series of administrative missteps. He was involved in a public clash with another Austrian bishop, the deeply conservative Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, and many people declared Krenn the winner. His blunt talk seemed preferable to Schönborn’s shifting and evasive comments. Then Schönborn carried out a purge of his top staff, in one case informing his vicar general that he was fired by leaving a note on his doorstep. Polls that once showed Schönborn enjoying the support of almost 80 percent of Austrians today show similar numbers hoping he’s called to Rome for a curial assignment.

These stumbles, combined with Schönborn’s relative youth by papal standards, will present serious obstacles to his election. But time heals many wounds, and if the election does not occur for several more years, he is one to watch.

Schönborn won high marks at the synod for demanding an examination of conscience on the part of the Western European church about its witness in defense of the East. Noting that the church behind the Iron Curtain was once called the “church of silence,” Schönborn asked if we too did not contribute to this silence through indifference. His comments were taken as a powerful gesture of fraternity with the Eastern church, and a sign that Schönborn grasps his role in Vienna, long regarded as the European bridge between West and East.

Miloslav Vlk, 67, of Prague, is considered a long-shot among the papabili because he’s from Eastern Europe, and after Wojtyla the odds of a conclave turning immediately to another pope from that part of the world are long.

Nevertheless, Vlk enjoys the support of colleagues across Europe, as demonstrated by his election to head the Council of European Bishops Conferences -- making him the successor to Martini. His life story also commands respect. Under the communists in Czechoslovakia, Vlk was denied permission to function as a priest and spent several years on the streets as a window-washer, spending his nights in the underground church - risking arrest with virtually every Mass he said or confession he heard.

Vlk is a bright man. His 1999 book Also avanti! reveals a thinker deeply in touch with both the Western and the Eastern halves of the continent, and that could be profoundly appealing to electors. He also speaks several languages.

In the eyes of many observers, however, Vlk has hurt himself at the synod. His intervention was entirely devoted to the new movements, especially Focolare, which Vlk first encountered when he was in the seminary in East Germany in 1964. During his days as a window washer he belonged to Focolare community, which he described in his book as a kind of “paradise.”

His emphasis on the movements, because they are such a favorite of John Paul II, did little to suggest how a Vlk papacy might lead the church in new directions. Moreover, electors will not be satisfied with a single-issue candidate; they will want someone with a broader vision. Finally, because some bishops have reservations about the movements, Vlk’s enthusiasm for them may raise doubts about his judgment on other issues.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999