VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he will resign on Feb. 28 opens the door to an array of possible successors, from the conservative cardinal of Milan to a contender from Ghana and several Latin Americans.
But don’t count on a radical change of course for the Catholic Church: Benedict appointed the majority of cardinals who will choose his successor from within their own ranks.
There’s no clear front-runner, though several leading candidates have been mentioned over the years as “papabile” — or having the qualities of a pope.
So, will the papacy return to Italy, after three decades of a Polish and a German pope? Or does Latin America, which counts some 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, deserve one of their own at the church’s helm?
Will a younger cardinal be considered, now that future popes can feel freer to resign? The 110-plus cardinals who are younger than 80 and eligible to vote will weigh all those questions and more when they sequester themselves in the Sistine Chapel next month to choose Benedict’s successor, a conclave that will likely produce a new pope by Easter.
Some said Benedict’s resignation presents an opportunity to turn to Africa or Latin America, where Catholicism is more vibrant. “Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” said Monsignor Antonio Marto, bishop of Fatima in central Portugal. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America, where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.”
“Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents.”
However, more than half of those eligible to vote in the College of Cardinals hail from Europe, giving the continent an edge even though there’s no rule that cardinals vote according to their geographic blocs.
A handful of Italians fit the bill, top among them Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, archbishop of Milan. Scola is close to Benedict, has a fierce intellect and leads the most important archdiocese in Italy. Other leading Italians include Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, head of the Vatican’s culture office and another intellectual heavyweight who quotes Hegel and Neitzsche as easily as the Gospels. He has climbed into the spotlight with his “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project, an initiative to enter into dialogue with the worlds of art, culture and science — and most importantly atheists.
Benedict’s onetime theology student, Viennese Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 68, has long been considered to have the stuff of a pope — multilingual, affable and, most importantly, Benedict’s blessing. He has been dealing, however, with a difficulties in Vienna, where a revolt of dissident priests has questioned church teachings.
North America has a few candidates, though the Americans are considered longshots. These include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Raymond Burke, an arch-conservative and the Vatican’s top judge.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Oeullet is a contender, earning the respect of his colleagues as head of the Vatican’s office for bishops.
“It’s time for there to be a Latin American pope, because Latin America has the greatest number of Christians,” said the Rev. Juan Angel Lopez, spokesman for the Catholic Church of Honduras. His man, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, however, is considered far too liberal to be elected by such a conservative bloc.
Leading Latin American possibilities include Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the 63-year-old archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, head of the Vatican’s office for Eastern rite churches. Sandri earned fame as the “voice” of Pope John Paul II when the pontiff lost the ability to speak because of his Parkinson’s disease.
Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, has earned praise as head of the Vatican’s office for religious congregations, even though he’s only held the job since 2011. .
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican, currently heading the Vatican’s office for justice and peace. But he is prone to gaffes and is considered something of a wild card.
Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, is a rising star in the church, but at 56, he is considered too young.