So there may be two superpowers alter all: the US, because of its military might; and the Vatican, because of its spiritual power. Josef Stalin famously asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” John Paul II, the last, great political superstar of the 20th century, commanded no divisions. But the Pope who came from the cold was instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the system which had produced Stalin himself.

In more than a quarter of a century, the breathless “athlete of God” projected spiritual power across all continents like no other global leader. It did not escape the perception of 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and animists, that John Paul II also forcefully condemned the war on Iraq – to the great chagrin of born-again Methodist George W. Bush, a man who claims a permanent IDD connection with God.

As crucial as he may have been geopolitically and georeligiously, John Paul II, just like Pope Paul VI, failed at the gates of China. Unlike the Iron Curtain, Beijing would never allow the Pope to become a powerful symbol against repression. Christians may be a tiny minority in Asia. But John Paul II always insisted this would be the continent of Christianity’s “Third Millennium.” Many Vatican analysts agree that the time may be ripe for a Pope from the Philippines, from South Korea, or from India.

An Asian Pope?

The key Asian possibility in this case is Ivan Dias, 68, the archbishop of Mumbai. Dias has been a priest since 1958, worked in Africa, normalized religious practice in post-communist Albania and was always very close to Mother Teresa in Kolkata and to John Paul II himself, who appointed him archbishop in 1996. Dias – a simple, gentle man who lives a Spartan life quickly became the spokesman of India’s Catholics (only 3% of the population), always facing trouble from aggressive Hindu nationalists. His entourage defines him as the Gandhi of India’s Catholics. But he’s also very conservative: Dias was at the heart of the Vatican sanctions against theologian Jacques Dupuy, who was in favor of a non-orthodox realignment between Christianity and the great Asian religious traditions.

Saint Wojtyla superstar

The beatification process of the most filmed and photographed man in the world for the past quarter of a century started the minute he died, Saturday night at the Vatican. It’s unlikely that the next Pope will be such a consummate actor and athlete of God. The new Pope will be chosen among nuances of conservatism: John Paul II managed to marginalize all dissent inside the Catholic Church, from fundamentalists on the right to the theology of liberation on the left.

That’s the other face of his superstar coin: an almost Stalinist ideological centralism which many Vaticanists say was rarely seen even in a 2,000-year-old multinational corporation with vast experience on the matter.

John Paul II’s extreme moral and sexual conservatism – against abortion (“legalized extermination”), against euthanasia, against homosexuality (“evil”), against gay rights, against divorce, against a bigger role for women in the Church, against birth control – and his incomprehension of how the AIDS virus is transmitted sexually, could lead him to be occasionally mistaken for a 13th century theologian. But he could always throw a political bomb, as Vaticanist Philippe Levillain notes: “One of his most beautiful encyclicals is Centisimus Annus [“after 100 years”, a reference to Rerum Novarum by Leon XIII], in which he affirms that capitalism has no right to dominate the failed hopes of socialism. The great social idea of John Paul II is that one must maintain the egality of chances between individuals by guaranteeing equality between countries. The rich must really help the poor.”

Regime change, Vatican-style

Considering that of the 117 cardinals of less than 80 years of age who will vote in a conclave to elect a new emperor of the Church, all but three were appointed by John Paul II himself, it’s fair to expect that the elected won’t deviate from his precepts. But the fact is that to elect the correct successor to such a charismatic, global megastar like John Paul II will require a lot of help from Divine Providence.

The kingmakers are Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the custodian of orthodoxy. Behind the scenes the key actor is Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the chamberlain, the man who is actually preparing the conclave and who filters the names of the papabili to a handful around whom the real serious discussions will take place. Among other important actors – like Jean-Marie Lustiger, former archbishop of Paris, and Edward Egan from New York – we find another Asian, Cardinal Jaime Sin, the archbishop emmeritus of Manila. But the grand elector is undoubtedly Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals.

Conclave comes from the Latin cum clave (with the keys): since the 13th century the papal election is a strictly in house closed affair. And since the Renaissance, it takes place inside the Sistine Chapel, under the vigilant watch of the fabulous Italian-restored, Japanese-financed frescoes of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement.” The Pope must be elected by a two-thirds majority. In case of a stalemate, a reform introduced in 1996 rules that after 34 rounds, a simple majority will do. No candidate is formally announced. The faithful say that the grand elector is in fact the Holy Spirit. By this being a 2,000-year-old corporation, there are a lot of backroom deals. The cardinals this time come from 54 different countries. And for the first time in 2,000 years, the European cardinals do not control the majority of votes.

After a quarter of a century of the Pope from Poland – the first non-Italian in 455 years – Vaticanists insist the next reign will be short, according to tradition. This increases the odds favoring an Italian. Sources in Rome stress there are two major options on the table facing Michelangelo’s frescoes: the “back to Italy” option and the Latin American option.

“Back to Italy” would mean a short, transitional pontificate after the long, imperial reign of John Paul II, a sort of breath of fresh air coming from a global power obsessed in detailing all sorts of rules to all the provinces of Christianity. If “Back to Italy” prevails, these are the main contenders.

Dionigi Tettamanzi, Cardinal of Milan. He’s been a favorite for years. A student of morality and allegedly a fine connoisseur of the problems regarding the family, a key theme to John Paul II, Tettamanzi is a tentative reformist who collaborated closely with John Paul II. He’s also a very good mediator: during the turbulent G-8 summit in Genoa he went to talk directly with the anti-globalization protesters. He’s very sensitive to social justice and the pernicious effects of globalization. In 2003, before and during the war on Iraq, he was in the frontlines in John Paul II’s offensive in favor of peace.

Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice. Venice has often been the antichamber of the papacy. Scola is a fine theologian, a very cultured man who collaborated with John Paul II in some encyclicals. A great plus is that he insists Western culture must be “contaminated” by the vitality of Asia and especially Islam and Hinduism.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome. He’s a moderate, with deep knowledge of both the ecclesiastical machine and Italian politics. He says the Church must be confronted with contemporary culture and must find the right language to keep track of scientific progress.

Josef Ratzinger, a brilliant and rigorous theologian, the guardian of the dogma, may not be Italian, but he’s the ultimate Vatican insider. In the Middle Ages, he would have been the Great Inquisitor. He’s dubbed the panzerkardinal by Vaticanists. Ratzinger is extremely unpopular in Latin America because he was the key figure in the Vatican’s combat against the theology of liberation – those bishops like Brazilian Leonard Boff who privileged the poor and downtrodden and were accused of Marxist deviation. But from the Vatican’s point of view, Ratzinger would assure a smooth continuity from John Paul II, and since he’s 78, the reign would not last long.

All eyes on the South

If the Latin American option prevails, this would mean the priority for the Church now is to stress its globalized character: it would be a powerful, graphic sign of the end of Eurocentric Catholicism. Half the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. The Vatican voting South will be interpreted as a Church privileging social justice and globalization with a human face. An added benefit is that culturally this Latin Pope would be very close to the traditions of Rome.

Oscar A Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa (Honduras) is the big Latin American contender. A very strong personality – he’s been a math professor, plays piano and sax and knows how to fly a plane – Maradiaga is a former secretary general of the Latin American Episcopal Center and speaks more than 10 languages. He may not have a lot of support inside the Vatican corridors, but he is supported en masse by the Latin Americans – both centrists and progressives – and by most cardinals from the South.

Other Latin American contenders are Brazilian Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of Sao Paulo (Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world; Hummes was very close to President Lula da Silva; lately he distanced himself from more progressive currents of the Brazilian Church); Mexican Norberto Rivera Carrera; and the Argentinean Jesuit Jose Maria Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, very popular among the poor and the disenfranchised. All these cardinals are strong militants for social justice.

What about a black Pope? John Paul II defined Africa as “the continent of hope.” Catholicism is fast expanding in Africa. A black Pope would imprint the ultimate universality of the Catholic Church. Even the ultra-conservative Ratzinger has admitted publicly a black Pope would be “a good sign.” The key contender is Nigerian Francis Arinze, 73, president of the Episcopal Conference of Africa. He became a specialist in contacts with Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, is respected in Rome for his tact, modesty and sense of humor, and most of all for championing a continuous dialogue with moderate Islam.

There are plenty of European outsiders as well who could suddenly find a consensus in the conclave. That’s the case of Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, also a conservative but otherwise engaged for a long time as a cultured theologian in a dialogue with the Christian orthodox and reformist movements. The fact that he comes from a Jewish family would seal the rapprochement initiated by John Paul II between Christianity and Judaism.

Vaticanists also bet on the “unknown cardinal.” That’s exactly what happened when a certain Karol Woytila from Krakow emerged in October 1978. The Vatican at the time had chosen Eastern Europe as the battleground to confront communism head on. The new frontier today has to be Asia – the confluence of Islam, China and India. An Asian Pope would reveal Christianity in its third millennium as being fully synchronized with the march of history.

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