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
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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.

Inevitably, each of these books culminates in a survey of the field of papabili: the cardinals thought likely candidates to succeed John Paul II. Here are each man's qualifications and experience: the languages he speaks, the Church agencies he serves, the allies and antagonists he is said to have made in Vatican City. But these capsule biographies, so full of detail, have little of value to say about the character and beliefs of the different cardinals—and even less about which of them might actually wind up as Pope.

These books suggest that when it comes to characterizing the Church's leadership, even the experts are amateurs. It is tempting to blame the problem on the Vatican, a place where overt displays of personality are discouraged, or on John Paul, whose outsize character has dwarfed the men who surround him. But it is hard not to conclude, reading these books, that the experts are asking the wrong questions, following a script that has been written, in effect, by twenty centuries of precedent.

Somewhere in the papal apartments is kept a silver hammer that bears on its head the coat of arms and motto ("Totus Tuus," or "All Yours") of John Paul's pontificate. When John Paul dies, the silver hammer will be put to use, an act the books describe with relish. It will be taken up by the cardinal archbishop known as the camerlengo, or chamberlain—currently Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, a Spaniard. Summoned to the Pope's side, Martínez Somalo will call out the Pope's given name three times: "Karol, Karol, Karol. " If there is no response, he will rap the hammer on the Pope's forehead to make sure that he is dead; then he will remove the papal ring from the dead man's hand and smash the ring with the hammer.

The smashing of the "ring of the Fisherman" once had practical utility: because the ring was used to stamp the wax that sealed papal documents, it had to be destroyed to prevent a pretender from issuing dicta in the Pope's name. Today the ritual has only a symbolic significance, but the symbolism is striking. As it sets in motion the election of the next Pope, it serves as a reminder that the papacy is not passed on but taken up afresh—that it is recast by each man who occupies the office, and that the process by which a new Pope is chosen is something other than a simple succession.

"The Papacy presents the most remarkable spectacle in history of old age in action. Most of the pontiffs were elected at an age when a king would have been considered fit only for abdication, yet the invigorating effect of St Peter's Chair is well known. "

By now the manner of writing about a Pope in decline is as ritualized as a Holy Thursday mass at Saint Peter's. The remark above is taken from A Traveller in Rome, by the English writer H. V. Morton, and although the book was published in 1957, as Pius XII, near the end of a nineteen-year pontificate, struggled with an acute case of the hiccups, it might have been published yesterday, so familiar is the rhetoric of reverent overstatement to which writers on assignment in the Eternal City are prone. "There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonized than Pius XII," Morton declared; he went on to catalogue the Pope's worldly achievements—"he is the first Pope to have flown, to descend into a mine, and to visit a submarine"—and to exclaim about the "astounding changes" that "in less than a century" had extended the Pope's realm "into the minds and consciences of some four hundred million people in all parts of the world. "

From the archives:

"Of Sex and the Catholic Church" (February 1981)
When the bishops' synod on the Christian family convened in Rome last fall, there were hopes that the Church would reform its position on such crucial issues as birth control and divorce. But, despite pleas from liberal prelates around the world, the Vatican-dominated synod reaffirmed the precedence of law over compassion. By Francis X. Murphy.

Now as then, the Vatican correspondent is a travel writer of sorts, explaining the local customs and folkways. This was more conspicuously true half a century ago, when the lingua franca was Latin and the Pope seldom left the premises, and naturally it fell to priests to interpret the workings of the Holy See to outsiders. During the Second Vatican Council the American Redemptorist Francis X. Murphy turned the priestly insider's chronicle into an art form. Appointed a peritus, or theological adviser, at the council, Murphy contrived to have his observations published as a "Letter From Vatican City" in The New Yorker. Over four years a dozen long "Letters" followed, each printed over the pseudonym Xavier Rynne. It was as if A. J. Liebling had donned a cassock and taken up residence in Vatican City. Rynne's identity was a secret even among the bishops, and his familiar tone suggested that he was an intimate of Pope John XXIII, whom he characterized as a man very much like himself—a simple Christian, at once charming and crafty, who had called the council to the shock of the Roman Curia, the clerical elite who attend to the daily business of the Church, and then "hustled his procrastinating pastors and theologians" into embracing his ideas about "how the Christian life should be pursued in today's world. "

Read today, Rynne's letters seem overly detailed and often musty in their Latinisms ("Anything but a superficial observation of the first session of Vatican Council II at this time would be temerarious," one piece began), but they influenced the thinking of many American Catholics now over fifty, and set the tone for much progressive Catholic journalism. As the priest and conservative commentator Richard John Neuhaus later wrote, in them the council was made out to be "a tale of good liberals against bad conservatives, good progressives against bad traditionalists," and "the good guys were winning every round. "

Pope John died (Rynne reported) at 7:49 p. m. on June 3, 1963. Using the Pope's baptismal name, he pronounced a panegyric in the plain American idiom he had managed to make seem the Pope's own: "Angelo Roncalli did what he said the Council would do: he opened the windows of the Church and let in fresh air. " Of the new Pope, Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan, Rynne observed that his "most striking single act" was his choice of the name Paul, after the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul VI was dubbed "the pilgrim Pope," and in the early years of his pontificate he made the moniker fit. He initiated many practices now associated with John Paul II—he knelt and kissed the ground during a visit to Colombia, celebrated mass in Yankee Stadium, and internationalized the College of Cardinals, in which Italians predominated.

Paul was more complex and less vivid than John, at once a master and a captive of the Curia from which he had sprung, and this circumstance informs the work of Peter Hebblethwaite, Xavier Rynne's successor as the most prominent English-language Vaticanista. An Englishman and a former priest, Hebblethwaite wrote for both the sober English Jesuit journal The Month and the progressive National Catholic Reporter, based in Kansas City. He rated Paul (whose biography he wrote) a great man and a great Pope for supervising "the implementation of the Council" and keeping peace between European traditionalists and New World radicals; but as the council receded, there was less and less to report. Hebblethwaite quoted a Vatican official's tart assessment of the relationship between the Curia and the aging Pope: "They treat him as though he were already dead. "

When it came, Paul's death, at age eighty (9:40 p. m. , August 6, 1978), set off what Hebblethwaite called "the year of three popes. " Cardinals (111 of them) and journalists (2,000) hastened to sweltering Rome, where the Pope's body lay decomposing in Saint Peter's. Hebblethwaite reported on the conclave for Harold Evans's Sunday Times of London, and his approach—part theology, part strategy—set the pattern for the present "next conclave" reporting. He pointed out that in naming new cardinals Paul had been "building up the college that would elect his successor," and that in the age of jet travel, "the cardinals at the next conclave would know each other better than ever before. " He mapped out a fault line between conservatives (who wished that John had not called the Vatican Council in the first place) and progressives (who wished that Paul had been less cautious in carrying out its dictates). He set up a kingmaker—Cardinal Benelli, the sostituto, or Vatican undersecretary of state—and then showed how rivalry, the kingmaker's plotting, and the work of the grande elettore, the Holy Spirit, tipped the vote to Albino Luciani of Venice, who chose the name John Paul.

Luciani's death a month later exposed as cliché much of what had been written about his election. Was it really credible to say that the grande elettore had "chosen" a man who was on the verge of a fatal heart attack? The cardinals and the press returned to Rome, and after a rain-soaked funeral in Saint Peter's Square ("more than one journalist permitted himself to say that 'even the heavens wept,'" Hebblethwaite remarked) the cardinal electors entered the Sistine Chapel again.

The story of how they chose a Polish Pope has been told countless times since, but Hebblethwaite, writing on deadline, judged the situation right. The progressive Italian candidates who had trailed Luciani were deemed "brucciati, spent forces. " A reactionary front-runner, Giuseppe Siri of Genoa, sabotaged his candidacy by speaking recklessly in a newspaper interview that hit the stands just before the electors went into conclave. A kingmaker emerged in Franz König of Vienna, who sought a non-Italian Pope and a Vatican II Pope; he found allies in Joseph Ratzinger of Munich and John Krol of Philadelphia, and together they championed Karol Wojtyla of Kraków. The Pole's summer sojourn in North America had had great consequences after all.

Thus was elected the most surprising of recent Popes. But the real surprise, as one realizes reading Hebblethwaite's account a quarter of a century later, lay in the direction that John Paul's pontificate took. For at first John Paul II was thought to be … a liberal! The emphasis he had given at Vatican II to the notion of the "People of God" was interpreted as a sign of his wish to favor the laity over the clergy. His support for labor agitators in Poland was thought to extend to revolutionaries in Latin America. His stated wish for "full communion" between Catholicism and the "separated" churches was seen as readiness to meet the Anglicans and the Orthodox halfway.

Why has this pontificate gone so unexpectedly? It may be that experts were stuck on brittle formulations—a Pope for the council or against it; a "pilgrim Pope" or a "prisoner of the Vatican"; a Pope from Italy or one from "a far country"—and so could not see Wojtyla for the distinctive character he was. It may be that the Iron Curtain hid Polish Catholics' view of their country as the last redoubt of Catholic Europe. It may be that John Paul changed course somewhat after he had surveyed the Catholic world from Peter's throne, and that the credit he got for bringing down the Iron Curtain emboldened him to act magisterially rather than collegially.

Could anyone outside the Vatican have foreseen that Karol Wojtyla would be elected Pope? Could anyone even inside the Vatican have foreseen the direction his pontificate would take—the 100-plus foreign trips; the plethora of canonizations; the opening to Judaism and the rebuff to Anglicanism; the challenge to communism in Poland and then throughout the Eastern bloc; the apology to Galileo; the photo op with Castro; the abrupt declarations that matters of ordination and sexuality, which had only just begun to receive informed attention from the world's Catholics, were closed to further discussion? The answer, of course, is no. Even so, the spectacular misreading of John Paul shows the perils of interpreting any Pope in terms of his curriculum vitae.

Perhaps with the surprises of John Paul in mind, Hebblethwaite wrote The Next Pope. Having created the mold for conclave reporting, with this book (published a decade ago), he created the mold for the current conclave books: a catchy title, a jacket showing some cardinals looking at once contemplative and mysterious, a promise of a "behind-the-scenes look" at the process, and thumbnail character sketches of the papabili. Though it is sprinkled with vivid details and anecdotes, The Next Pope is in spirit a polemic against what Hebblethwaite(who died shortly after completing it)saw as the interminable misrule of John Paul II. It is as if he, like an aging cardinal, knew that he would not see the next conclave and so decided to cast his vote in print—hoping for "a chance for the Church to make a fresh start. "

His survey of the papabili, however, suggests that the fresh start he envisioned is unlikely. His and everyone else's favorite Italian progressive, Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, is now seventy-six and thus an unlikely choice, as is the charming moderate Marco Cé of Venice, now seventy-nine. He dismisses the other Italians as reactionaries of one kind or another. Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, is "an embarrassment: 'a gray man with gray ideas. '" Giacomo Biffi of Bologna is a "depressing" champion of Opus Dei and other traditionalist movements. Dionigi Tettamanzi of Genoa is as dull as his name—which means "bull's tits"—is colorful. Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, "is seen as ruthless, cold, and controlling" and "is likely to be a kingmaker, rather than a candidate. "

Among the attractive European candidates, Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, a Jewish convert, is today too old, and Godfried Danneels of Belgium too awkward socially. The tolerable Americans—Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and William Keeler of Baltimore—suffer the drawback of being American in a world seen as riven and even dominated by the world's only superpower. That leaves the prospect of an "international" candidate. Hebblethwaite had a warm feeling for the Church in Latin America, but he saw all the present cardinals there as agents of a Vatican crackdown on progressive vitality. "Ambitious and unscrupulous" Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia was closely associated with a Belgian Jesuit who "had more contacts with the CIA than with the Society of Jesus"; his countryman Dario Castrillón Hoyos (deemed a papabile by the novelist Gabriel García Márquez) was "mind-blowingly conservative. " Among the rest of the world's candidates—everyone from Jaime Sin of Manila to Stephen Hamao of Japan—Hebblethwaite lavished the most attention on Francis Arinze of Nigeria: a black man and a convert from animism, who was the head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (he now heads the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments). Hebblethwaite reported that Arinze "sat on the papal chair during the final Mass of the Synod for Africa, when John Paul was taken to hospital with a broken femur—perhaps a sign of things to come? " A journalist to the end, he seemed to know that—as has proved the case—the press and the public alike would relish the prospect of a black Pope.

Every Friday the National Catholic Reporter posts a column called "The Word From Rome" on its Web site, alongside a photograph of its author, John L. Allen Jr. , whose smile and neatly trimmed black beard make him look more like a Franciscan friar than a reporter. "The Word From Rome" is Allen's running chronicle of public life in the Vatican. Long, chatty, written with offhand ease, it effectively puts the reader in "this 108-acre island of ecclesiastical life in the heart of modern urban Rome"—a place, it seems, where liturgies and prayers are greatly outnumbered by conferences, lectures, state visits, and the like. In one column earlier this year Allen reported on a symposium at which scholars reappraised the work of the late theologian Karl Rahner; passed along "talk of a 'feminist turn' in Vatican personnel policy" prompted by the appointment of the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences; and apologized to Archbishop O'Brien of Edinburgh for attributing to him, rather than to his late colleague Cardinal Winning of Glasgow, the oft quoted characterization of Cardinal Tettamanzi as a "wee fat guy. "

The emergence of Allen, who is thirty-nine years old, as "one of the most influential men in Rome" (as he was called in a recent Newsweek article by Kenneth Woodward and Robert Blair Kaiser, two old Vatican hands) is perhaps the most unlikely development yet in the run-up to the next conclave. In 1997 Allen was teaching religion at Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles; in 1999 the National Catholic Reporter sent him to Europe on a six-week assignment and then made him its Vatican correspondent; by last year he had become an expert commentator for National Public Radio, PBS, CNN, The Boston Globe, and European television. Allen is the reporter who spotted Cardinal Bernard Law out to dinner in Rome with a senior secretary to the Pope at the low point of the clerical sexual-abuse scandals in Boston—and the scoop was the first clear sign that the crisis might lead to Law's resignation.

Allen is a dogged reporter but not, as a rule, a controversial or investigative one; he brings a graduate student's enthusiasm to the subject of how the Vatican operates. Upon the death, in March, of Franz König, the kingmaker who engineered Karol Wojtyla's election, Allen recalled an afternoon he spent, starstruck, in the ancient prelate's company. Upon John Paul's eighty-fourth birthday, in May, Allen ingeniously "attempted to quantify the pope's decline by comparing his official schedule from 25 years ago, as released by the Vatican Press Office, with his program today. " His "bottom line" was that "the John Paul of today is roughly 40 percent less active in Rome than he was … and 75 percent less active during his trips abroad. "

What does Allen himself think about the man and the institution he covers? It is often hard to tell by reading "The Word From Rome. " In this the column is distinctly different from the National Catholic Reporter as a whole, which as a rule takes a strident, adversarial approach to the "institutional Church" in general and the residents of its Roman headquarters in particular. The Vatican and NCR are about as dissimilar as Catholic institutions can be. Rather than untangling the paradox of his role, however, Allen has pitched his tent within it, speaking to both sides from some unchartable spot in the middle.

Naturally, Allen is often asked who the next Pope will be, and the question hovers over his two recent books: Conclave, published in 2002, and All the Pope's Men, published earlier this year. He deftly delivers plenty of little-known information about recent Popes, and at the end of Conclave he gives his own "top twenty list" of front-runners for the papacy. His capsule biographies reveal that these men, assumed to be as one in matters of doctrine, are quite diverse in experience. Miloslav Vlk of the Czech Republic once worked as a window washer. Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine is a U. S. citizen who returned to his native land in adulthood. Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras is a champion of debt relief. Tettamanzi lined up alongside "the people of Seattle" at protest rallies during the G-8 summit in Genoa in 2001. For every man whose views are more provocative than one might wish (such as Arinze, who declared that his reaction upon seeing gay men in the streets of Rome was a desire to "wash their heads with holy water") there is one who, like Walter Kasper the "friendly cardinal" from Germany, is unexpectedly appealing. Although Conclave is as good a book on the subject as we are likely to get, it doesn't leave a distinct impression of actual men. Allen's papabili are careers in human form, résumés with arms and legs. As for All the Pope's Men, his attempt to solve this problem, it delivers everything one could ask for in a book about the Vatican's inner workings except the human portraiture the title promises.

Allen will be CNN's onscreen analyst during the next conclave. The prospect that this gifted and relatively young writer will be lost, Stephanopoulos-like, to the limbo of expert commentary is disheartening. It suggests that in the development of Vatican reporting from Rynne to Hebblethwaite to Allen—from a priest to a former priest to a reporter who looks like a priest—the triumph of process over character is complete, and the appraisal of human strengths and weaknesses has been replaced by the analysis of organizational behavior. If this is so, it is no surprise. Something like it has happened in American Catholic intellectual life generally, among progressives and traditionalists alike.

Fortunately, Allen already seems to be growing out of the role set aside for him. As he has gone from novice to wunderkind to sage, he has begun to address the next pontificate more emphatically. In a talk at the Catholic Press Association's annual meeting in Washington, D. C. , in May he sketched scenarios for "four prospective pontificates," and in them offered searching characterizations of four men's visions for the papacy. Joseph Ratzinger, he explained, would run the papacy like a border patrol, policing the Church the way he has as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome—but he would do so in order to seek "a smaller but more unified Church, a 'mustard seed,' one whose reduced size produces a more intense fidelity. " Danneels of Belgium would make the papacy the locus of reform and collegiality, because he believes that "a more engaged and optimistic church, using the language of beauty rather than condemnation, is the right dialogue partner for the Western world. " Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice, would shape an "integralist" papacy, devoted to "the urgent work of fostering distinctively Christian cultural proposals"—which "would mean a more scrappy, confrontational Catholic church, closer to what Americans have come to call 'the religious right,' though with a more solid intellectual underpinning. " Cláudio Hummes of Brazil would act as an agent of social justice, "addressing the structural inequalities in the world that condemn millions of God's people to poverty, disease, and civil unrest," and would urge his pastors to see "the struggle for human dignity" on behalf of the poor as "itself a form of evangelization. " Addressed to a religious audience, these sketches sparkle with insight. In them the papabili are men with hearts and souls, who stand for four distinct ways to be Catholic in twenty-first-century society. In them these religious leaders actually seem religious.

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, the Patriarch of the West, the Vicar of Christ, the Servant of the Servants of God. So freighted with import are these titles that it is easy to forget that the Pope is first and foremost a believing Christian, and that he is nothing else—nothing authentic, at least—if his beliefs are not believable.

On this point John Paul's legacy to the next Pope is clear. More than at any other time in the modern history of the papacy, the Pope is recognized worldwide as an authentic religious figure. All but his fiercest critics would concede that John Paul is not the Antichrist, not an agent of political reaction, but a true believer who sees it as his mission to ensure that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth. To those who think that a Pope's claim to a special role among Christians is ridiculous, John Paul has put forward his life and self as a rejoinder. It is possible to believe that he has drawn some wrong conclusions from Catholicism's premises—to wish that his pontificate had brought a different set of surprises—and yet at the same time be prompted to a more authentic faith by his example, the witness of a person who is obviously worthy of the office he occupies.

Where the experts expected the papal role to diminish, John Paul has surprised them, strengthening the papacy by taking it to the people. This is a development that ought to have been foreseen, because it was implicit in the pontificates that preceded his. John XXIII, through the Second Vatican Council, put forward the image of the Church as a body of believers on a pilgrimage in time, rather than an institution standing above and outside history. Paul VI, "the pilgrim Pope," made the metaphor literal, rooting it in the foreign soil he kissed. And John Paul has made his entire pontificate a pilgrimage—one full of implications for the pilgrimage of the ordinary believer. Through his trips he has made clear that the whole world—not just a certain 108 acres within Rome—is pilgrim territory. In recent years, by carrying on in public even though he is physically diminished, he has acted out the central Christian belief that it is in suffering embraced in faith that redemption is to be sought.

Now all the world knows what kind of believer Karol Wojtyla is; and the cardinals who will elect his successor doubtless know it especially well. Like him, they are religious people; and for all their human failings, it seems reasonable to suppose that when the time comes to choose the next Pope, they will strive to put first things first. In choosing John Paul's successor, then, surely they will seek no less a man of faith than he. Age, nationality, languages, achievements, the demographic prospects for the Church in the new century: all these will be important considerations, and will be grist for the media. So will the questions of whether the papacy is to pass from Europe (now seen as a pagan place that needs to be converted all over again) and whether the Italian cardinals or the German ones will hold sway in the conclave.

But the cardinal electors, with the next Pope sitting among them, and with (they believe) the grande elettore presiding, will ask first of all how authentic the faith of that man of faith is—how high his hopes, how deep his depths. They will ponder his character, mindful that John Paul's character has shaped the Church worldwide for a quarter of a century. They will ask, What kind of believer is he? And, a little later, so will we.

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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