Have you thought about the next papal election yet?

You and I may not have, but Anura Gurugé has. He’s even set up two websites on the papacy — one on papal elections — Papam – All About Papal Elections — and another called Popes and the Papcy with his latest list of the next papabili.

This all seems quite early. Pope Benedict seems in good shape despite his years. It’s never too early to speculate, though. Gurugé’s top three for the next head of the Roman Catholic Church are Brazilian Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo, Italy’s Ennio Antonelli, President of the Council for the Family (Roman Curia) and Canadian Marc Ouellet of  Quebec.

After Gurugé flagged his website to me, I went to the main  “let’s get in on the speculation early” site, that of the Dublin bookmaker Paddy Power. They don’t agree — their top three are Venice’s Cardinal Angelo Scola, Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. (Photo: Cardinals file into Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, 18 April 2005/Osservatore Romano)

Cardinal denies zucchetto thrown into papal succession ring

Book of interviews with Cardinal Rodriguez MaradiagaCardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga has denied throwing his red zucchetto (clerical skullcap) into the ring as a possible candidate to become the next pope. As we’ve already blogged here and here, the publication of a French book of interviews with the archbishop of Tegucigalpa last month has been interpreted by some Vatican watchers as subtle self-promotion — una autocandidatura, as they say in Rome. This was bolstered by unfounded speculation about Pope Benedict’s health, which seems quite good for a man of his age (81).

Now, in an interview with the Milan daily Il Giornale, Rodríguez Maradiaga has dismissed this speculation as a “mistaken interpretation” of his words. Most importantly, he said the interview in question took place in 2004, before the death of Pope John Paul II and simply expressed an obvious fact being discussed at the time. “Of course, the day will come for a pope from the South, as it came for one from the East,” he said. “At no time have I thought of myself as papabile (a possible pope). I have much to do in my beloved Honduras and I’ve never thought of putting my name forward.

Andrea Tornielli blog logoKudos to Il Giornale‘s Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli for tracking this down. The book in question, a collection of the cardinal’s interviews with a French journalist in Rome, states the conversations were held in 2006 or 2007. Soon after the speculation began in the French press, Tornielli challenged the date of these “recycled quotes” on his blog Sacri Palazzi. He later nailed down the date as 2004.

Papal succession speculation sweepstakes off and running

Cardinals file into the Sistine Chapel for conclave, 18 April 2005/poolThe papal succession speculation sweepstakes are truly off and running. The Paris daily Le Figaro started it shortly after Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States with an article saying he looked tired and pointedly mentioning possible successors. The Vatican promptly denied any health problems and veteran vaticanisti poured cold water on the story. While we mentioned this here on the blog, we haven’t done a story for the Reuters file because it’s way too early for such speculation. B16 looks like he’s in pretty good shape for 81.

But once the gates were open, two leading religion writers saw no reason to hold back. Henri Tincq, long-time religion correspondent for Le Monde in Paris, came out on Friday with a full-page portrait of the current favourite pick (here in French). The headline reads: Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga, le cardinal tout-terrain (the all-terrain cardinal). Tincq starts off with an interesting lead: “There is no doubt that, if he is elected pope one day, he will allow cardinals and bishops to take the controls of a small plane or helicopter for their pastoral tours.” It seems he’s been told by the Vatican not to pilot aircraft anymore.

Tincq paints a lively portrait of the archbishop of Tegucigalpa who, apart from his religious vocation, is an amateur pilot, an accomplished musician (saxophone, organ, guitar, drums, double bass, marimba), speaks seven languages, has lobbied successfully for Third World debt relief and now heads Caritas Internationalis. And he’s only 65, meaning he has a long “window” of eligibility ahead of him.

Speculation starts about pope’s health, possible successor

Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium in New York, 20 April 2008/Mike SegarIt’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.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at Havana’s Catholic cathedral, 22 Feb. 2008/Enrique de la OsaThe 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.