In Search of a Pope

Media commentators love to speculate about the power politics of the next conclave. They keep forgetting about the most important factor of all

In the summer of 1976 Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Kraków, spent six weeks traveling in North America. He gave a lecture at Harvard, addressed a crowd of 40,000 people during an event in Philadelphia (Mother Teresa was the headliner), and went west with the city's archbishop, Cardinal John Krol, a son of Polish immigrants, to meet American Catholics of Polish descent. He celebrated masses, attended testimonial dinners, and hashed out theology with seminarians. He declined an invitation to the White House, lest the meeting be seen as an endorsement of Gerald Ford's bid to retain the presidency; he arrived three hours late for a meeting at the archbishop's residence in Boston, having spent the morning floating on a raft on a lake in Vermont. The visit, his second, was by all accounts a typical trip by a foreign prelate, and even his devoutest biographers depict it as one of no great consequence.

Two years later Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. From the moment his name was announced to the crowd awaiting word outside the Sistine Chapel, the story of his election was the story of how unlikely a Pope he was: the first non-Italian in 455 years, a Pole from behind the Iron Curtain of atheistic communism. Yet Wojtyla was no stranger in Vatican City. As his biographer George Weigel observes, he was "one of the most widely respected senior leaders in Roman Catholicism": a bishop at age thirty-eight and a cardinal at forty-seven, an active participant in the Second Vatican Council, and a favorite of Paul VI, who in 1976 chose him to lead the papal household's Lenten retreat. He was as familiar in Vatican City as he was obscure in Los Angeles.

Speaking from the portico of Saint Peter's Basilica, the new Pope introduced himself to the crowd below as a man calledto the papacy "from a far country. "Twenty-six years later the pontificate of John Paul II is recognized as a distinct chapter in the Church's history; and it is clear that the papacy, and the Church, bear the strong impression of his character: a blend of deep faith and shrewd calculation, of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, of charm and blunt rhetorical force, of doctrinal fixity and personal daring. And yet John Paul, so emphatic on so many points, has left one question unanswered.

Who will be the next Pope? While in Rome not long ago, finding myself with a free hour on the Vatican side of the Tiber, I paid a visit to Saint Peter's. I strode through the metal detector, past Michelangelo's Pietà, past the bronze of Saint Peter himself, past the forbidding sculpture of Pius XII and the glass-encased remains of John XXIII, past the high altar, and to Bernini's famous rendering of the Holy Spirit as a giant dove in flight in glass the color of a single-malt Scotch. I opened a guidebook. Below the Holy Spirit, roped off to keep pilgrims at a distance, is the Altar of the Chair, a grand Baroque symbol of the papacy. The altar proper is surmounted by an empty chair, once thought to be that of the saint himself, and flanked by four black marble figures, two of them wearing bishops' miters. In the shadows those bishops' faces are hard to make out, and I couldn't tell one from another.

I tried to picture a successor to John Paul celebrating mass at that altar, but I could bring no distinct image to mind. I suspect that few Catholics would be able to. John Paul's foreign trips have placed tens of millions of us in his presence, but have left an image of himas a lonely man of faith, all by himself at the top of the Vatican pyramid. The more we know about him, the less we know, it seems, about the men who work alongside him, and who will elect his successor from among themselves. American Catholics, especially, like to propose that the Church be governed more democratically; but if we were invited to elect the next Pope, we wouldn't know where to begin.

Today, at age eighty-four, stooped and shaken by Parkinson's disease, struggling even to conduct a half-hour audience from the papal apartments, John Paul is on the via dolorosa of his pilgrimage, and the delicate business of papal succession is uppermost in the minds of even his most stoic admirers. Ever since he was wounded by a would-be assassin's bullet, in 1981, everyone from the Vatican secretary of state to the editor of the National Enquirer has pondered the prospect of his death. When he broke his leg and had a hip replaced in 1994, forcing him to cancel a North American trip, speculation about his demise began in earnest. The end of a pontificate that began unexpectedly has been anticipated long in advance.

When John Paul does die, some 120 cardinals and as many as 10,000 journalists will converge on Rome. Along the Via della Conciliazione, which leads from the Tiber to Saint Peter's Square, suites leased long in advance for the views they afford of the papal apartments and the Sistine Chapel will be converted into television studios, and the wall-to-wall coverage will begin.

In the meantime, the expert commentators have begun prognosticating. There now exist half a dozen books in English that describe the process of papal succession in all its particulars: the funeral rites; the makeup of the College of Cardinals; the chemical composition of the black smoke ("still deliberating") and the white smoke ("we have a Pope") that issue from the Sistine Chapel furnace; the rules for keeping secrets in an age of mobile telephones; the layout of Casa Santa Marta, the dormitory ("more like a Holiday Inn than a Ritz-Carlton," one insider reports) built to house the cardinal electors, who during past conclaves slept in drafty offices near the Sistine Chapel, trudging to common toilets in the night.

Presented by

Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003).

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