The obviously failing health of Pope John Paul II has given new impetus to the Vatican press corps' favorite pre-occupation, compiling lists of "papabile."
The word can't be found in any Italian dictionary, but it translates literally as "popeable," and refers to cardinals who are considered possible candidates for the job of next pope.
In spite of the fact that the effort is about as useful and reliable as reading tea leaves, speculating on "papabile" is virtually an article of faith among "Vaticanisti," as the journalists who cover the Vatican daily are known. There is even an Irish online betting service that publishes lists, complete with odds.
Half a dozen names are common to most compilations. All that differs is the order of probability. Who you place where depends on your view of the key issues facing the church.
The rise of Islam is often cited as a major challenge, not so much militancy and terrorism — although they are issues on which the Church is expected to take a stand — but the fact that Islam is gaining converts at the expense of Catholicism. Any cardinal with experience in inter-faith dialogue, or an ability to deal with other faiths stands a good chance of being a "papablile."
The inroads being made by evangelical Protestants in Latin America, combined with the fact that the church is growing fastest in the Third World, accounts for at least three Central or South American cardinals featuring prominently on several lists.
Their chances are helped by the fact that John Paul II was the first non-Italian head of the Roman Catholic Church in 452 years. One school of thought has it that since the mold has been broken as it were, the next pope, too, will be a foreigner. But the Italians are a powerful block in the College of Cardinals, and their feeling on another non-Italian has been described as "been-there-done-that-don't-need-to-do-it-again-for-half-a- millennium."
Others look close to home for a more business-like reason. The Roman Curia, or central government of the Church, based in Vatican City, is considered by some to be "out of control," a result of a 26-year rule by a Pope who was less concerned with the details of running of the Church than with dogma and reaching out to his flock, especially young people. A "steady hand" with insider knowledge would be the reformers' choice, no matter what his nationality.
Then there is the harsh view that says the Catholic Church is riven with differences on a variety of issues including birth control, celibacy, attitudes towards homosexuality and internal issues such as ecumenism and that what is needed is a relatively short papacy to give the church a chance to resolve some of its problems. That translates as an older candidate getting the votes.
In his book on modern conclaves, "Passing the Keys," the author Francis A. Burkle-Young writes that the cardinals begin their search for a new pope with a "generalized idea" of some of the characteristics needed: a man in his middle sixties, a background of pastoral experience and some curial work, "friendly and open" with "a personality in keeping with the expectations of the Catholics of his time," and Italian. Burkle-Young claims that from Leo XIII to John Paul II "almost every pope has failed one, and sometimes two of these five criteria."