Speculation starts about pope’s health, possible successor
It’s never too early to start speculating about the next pope. The Paris daily Le Figaro seems to be the first out of the starting blocks with an article on Friday saying that Pope Benedict appeared tired during his U.S. tour and has been delegating more and more of his duties. “Three years after the election of Benedict XVI, his succession is not yet a daily issue at the Vatican but the rumours are rife,“ Rome correspondent Hervé Yannou wrote. “It’s true that he celebrated his 81st birthday on April 16 and everybody knows his health is fragile. The sovereign pontiff still climbs the stairs and is mentally alert, but he’s as old as his years. And it’s no secret for anyone that the pope has a weak heart.”
Perhaps to calm any concern the article might stir up, Yannou promptly says Benedict still plans to visit France on September 12-15, where he will celebrate a large outdoor mass at Les Invalides in Paris and visit the sanctuary at Lourdes. After a bit more background, he returns to the succession issue and names Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (photo below left), 74, as the front-runner. If the cardinal electors lean towards a non-European, Yannou’s pick is Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, 72, the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires who emerged as the main alternative to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now B16) at the 2005 conclave.
The reason for this speculation may have less to do with Benedict’s health than the fact that another “papabile” (pope candidate) has all but thrown his hat into the papal succession ring. On April 14, the day before Benedict left for Washington, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, 65, published a book in France entitled De la difficulté d’évoquer Dieu dans un monde qui pense ne pas en avoir besoin (The difficulty of evoquing God in a world that thinks it doesn’t need him). In it, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa (photo below right), who was considered a long-shot papabile back in 2005, wrote about the possibility of a non-European pope. This pontiff should be a “man of the 21st century” who embodies both tradition and innovation and whose knowledge of the concerns of the Third World would mean he could influence North-South relations, he wrote in what sounded very much like a self-description and job description rolled into one. French reporters covering Benedict’s U.S. visit briefly discussed the book one day in the press centre, but it didn’t sound like the start of the succession speculation season.
“Certainly, the pope is 81 years old,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican Press Office, told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. “But on live television, before the eyes of the whole world, anyone can see that he’s fine and is performing all of his duties.” Allen said the article illustrated “an iron-clad rule of Vatican coverage: however thin the pretext may be, speculation about the next pope is always guaranteed to generate an audience.”
Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale noted that Benedict, following his U.S. visit, had celebrated a funeral, would preside over a long ceremony on Sunday and planned trips in the coming months to northern Italy, southern Italy, Australia and France. “Il Giornale has confirmed there is no (health) alarm,” he wrote.
On his blog, Tornielli asked whether reluctant vaticanisti were now going to have to write more and more papal health stories. Only three years ago, he recalled, the death of Pope John Paul II ended a difficult decade in which Vatican reporters had to write frequently about health issues and medical false alarms. “What’s coming from France is an ugly signal — is it already starting again?” he asked.
What do you think about speculation like this? Is it irreverent, given that Benedict seems in good health for his age? Or should Vatican reporters follow up any lead like this?