Predicting the Pope: the ultimate sucker’s bet – UPDATED

“I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

That is what each Cardinal Elector will say each time he approaches the altar to deliver his vote for the next pope.

Pretty grave stuff, right there; I would bet that each time he repeats that sentence — on top of all the prefacing vows and promises — the weight of it is felt a bit more deeply.

Imagine being surrounded on all sides by Michelangelo’s depictions, knowing the challenges in the world, and what the church faces within them, and then being obliged to call upon the Lord Jesus Christ to witness your vote and the intent of your heart, informed as it is.

It’s way too knee-trembling a circumstance to leave up to mere politicking; that may occur before they enter the chapel, but, as John Allen tells it, “. . .what goes on is more akin to a liturgy than a political convention.”

Trying to predict who will emerge when next the church hears “Habemus papam” is the ultimate sucker’s bet. Or perhaps a supernatural wager we’d best avoid. It is a rare thing for the “presumed” pope to emerge from the conclave wearing the white skullcap.

In her recent excellent piece on the subject of Benedict’s resignation and the upcoming conclave Peggy Noonan writes:

There is an old saying, God has already chosen the next pope, it’s up to the cardinals to figure out who God’s choice is. The historian observes: “That doesn’t mean they’ll figure it out.”

And trying to “figure it out” is one of those temptations we’re all prone to, especially as we learn about what Rocco Palmo calls “the showcase”, and as we scan lists of possible contenders offered both within the Catholic press and in secular media.

The secular press — at least in the U.S. — cannot wrap its head around the fact that a pope is not a president, and the papal enclave is not a political horse-race with canvassing and campaigns. They love to ponder the papabile and they speak of “frontrunners” and “presumed” leaders.

But there is another old saying; it comes from the Italians, who certainly know: “He who enters the conclave as pope, leaves it as a cardinal.”

Promoting oneself for the office is not only deluded and nuts, it’s also unseemly. In the Rule of St. Benedict he writes that “to intrigue to be Abbot” is a very grave fault, and while the ironic joke amongst abbots and abbesses is that “whoever intrigues for this office deserves to get it”, if someone intrigues for the votes of his fellow Cardinals, his cape should be the reddest of warning flags that no, we don’t want this fellow, thanks.

There was some noise, last week, that Ghana-born Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson (an “early favorite of the bookmakers…” according to the press) seemed to be “promoting himself” as pope, and “getting the press comfortable” with him, but in reading his remarks, I wondered if he was being taken out of context by UK writers indulging in a bit of mischief. I once had the privilege of sitting in on a presentation by Turkson in which he discussed poverty issues, and I found him very impressive and very serious; he had both humor and gravitas and a thoughtful mien. The reckless chatterbox portrayed in the British stories I saw just didn’t seem to jibe. But it will certainly remain in the minds of many, as headlines always do.

The amusing side to the Turkson story is the email I’ve seen from some who feel that even if Cardinal Turkson has been the victim of some journalistic mischief, “his name is Peter, and St. Malachy predictions end with ‘Peter the Roman, so he freaks me out!”

Well, Turkson is “Peter the Ghanan” but Fr. Dwight Longenecker gives some sane background on those prophecies and their problems, and says “be not a-freaked.”

I’d remind those folks that there is another papabile Peter, Cardinal Bechara Peter Rai who might cue their inner Twilight Zone Theming, as well. Rai, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch (who, like Turkson, was elevated by Pope Benedict) was recently asked by Pope Benedict to compose the Good Friday Way of the Cross to be prayed at the Coliseum.

Is it just me or does Rai look a little bit like Pope John Paul I? Actually, he looks a lot like my dear Father-in-Law, and perhaps that’s why I like him, but wouldn’t it be so interesting to have a Pope come out of the Middle East, once more? Or does that scare folks, too?

It’s true that responsible Cardinal-electors have a chance, right now, to size-up their peers with clear eyes, they know that in the end, their ways are not God’s ways, and their thoughts not God’s thoughts. When the elegant, “aristocratic” Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) was replaced by the rotund and “common” Angelo Roncalli (Bl. John XXIII), the assumption was that John would only be an “interim” pope after Pius’ long reign, one who would not make waves. There was surprise.

When, after some pulling between “conservative” and “progressive” sides Albino Luciani emerged as Pope John Paul I on the fourth ballot, there was an assumption that his reign would provide time to further process the implementation of the Council, after the beginnings of Paul VI. There was surprise.

Only thirty days later, of course, yet another conclave convened — this time the College was shaken enough to bring forth something entirely new (and again, surprising): a pope from Poland!

After Bl. John Paul’s death, many were the voices suggesting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would be the last (and unthinkable) choice of the conclave — I distinctly remember Richard McBrien saying it would not be. As John Paul’s strength waned there was nearly a decade of “watching” during which Cardinal-electors could ponder and discuss and promote various papabile, and yet “Habemus papam” brought us “Joseph…” and once again, there was surprise.

So, I will not be surprised if we are “surprised” again. Benedict’s abrupt resignation, when most were sure he had at least a few years left within him, reminds me of the unexpected death of John Paul I; it has left all of us, including the Cardinal-electors, in a state of wonder, and perhaps not a little awe. “What does this mean in and for our time?”

In this “Lent at the end of an age”, we are all privileged to offer prayers and fasting for the sake of these electors and the conclave, and for whoever emerges. To our natural questions — what is the Holy Spirit doing? What, and who, does the Holy Spirit want — we can ask for clarity and wisdom. And mercy on the souls of all of our Cardinals and our eventual new pope.

Having said all of that about sucker’s bets and overspeculation, it will be worth checking out John Allen’s daily profiles of possible future popes, starting with Scola. Just in case the Holy Spirit decides to surprise us by not surprising us at all!

UPDATE: Deacon Greg says don’t forget O’Malley. We shouldn’t. Dolan gets all the press but O’Malley is an exemplary priest, and he’d be good for the church in Ireland. The Boston prelate has gone there and shared liturgies and public acts of “penance” for priestly abuses.

Also, here’s John Allen’s take on Turkson

I really like this piece by Peter Wolfgang on his personal sense of Benedict, gleaned through his writings.

Ann Rodgers Excellent piece on Benedict’s legacy

Joanne McPortland: The Dowager Pope and the Very Fallible Media

Important to understand: Benedict is not an American conservative

The American Conservative: Benedict’s Farewell and Christianity’s?

Crisis: Benedict’s Decision in Light of Eternity

In Honor of the “Papal Horserace”:

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About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Fr. Jay Finelli

    I’m sure we will be surprised. The Lord likes to do that. Praying for Pope Benedict and for our future Pope.

  • Adam

    I like what I hear about Cardinal Taigle, the Archbishop of Manila. I believe he’s the youngest of the pool, he seems remarkably orthodox, and he’s Asian-Pacific. (If a Pole astonished people before, a non-European would make people’s heads explode. Plus, we have three Filipino priests at my parish–I think they’d do cartwheels if he were elected.)

    I claim the exact same amount of insight here that I did when I bought my last Powerball ticket. Looking forward to the elections and whichever shepherd is given to us!

  • Dave Wells

    Elizabeth, I really like the idea about fasting for the College of Cardinals and the Conclave during this Lent. You’re the first person that I’ve seen suggest this. Would you consider doing more to promote this idea? I’m on board with you!

    [I brought it up here, too, but perhaps too obliquely. -admin]

  • Lori Pieper

    Thanks, Elizabeth, for recalling Pope John Paul I. So few people do, though he was a holy man of great simplicity and warmth. I’m translating some of his writings for publication right now.

    It’s sad to think that Pope Benedict XVI, who knew Luciani in life (and who said he prayed every day for his canonization), won’t get a chance to at least beatify him now, as he did for another friend, John Paul I.

    It would be very symbolically fitting, though, if Angelo Scola, Luciani’s successor as Patriarch of Venice, were to be elected and beatify him. He’s spoken of Luciani a number of times and supports his canonization. Scola would not only be the fourth Patriarch of Venice elected to the Papacy in modern times, but would be following three others who are a Saint (Pius X), Blessed (John XXIII) and Servant of God (John Paul I). Quite a legacy!

    Total papal geekery, I know :)

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  • Scott Alt

    I was watching an interview just yesterday with Cardinal O’Malley on Salt&Light, and I was impressed by his simplicity and humility. Might be in fact what the Church needs right now. I have the impression that, in the wildly improbable chance he were elected, he would continue to wear his Capuchin habit, which would have the effect of re-focusing people on the spiritual and consecrated life. That might be very good for the Church.

  • Manny

    I enjoyed the Guys and Dolls clip! Boy it’s been decades since I’ve seen the movie.

    As to next pope. I pray that it will be someone who will keep us on the same trajectory of JPII and B16. My nerves are actually on edge. I know I’m not supposed to fear. But I can’t help it. The culture has crapped out around us. The Catholic Church is all that stands in the way of the complete cultural fall of the western world. If there is a Pope that even begins to suggest that relativism is acceptable then we’re all doomed.

  • cathyf

    If you start getting too serious about the whole subject, visit the papalbracket…