Page 8, 16th March 2001

16th March 2001
Page 8
Page 8, 16th March 2001 — The danger of a really holy pope

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Locations: Rome, Naples


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The danger of a really holy pope

David Twiston Davies

Much of the discussion about the recent creation of another 44 cardinals has seemed to assume that that it is not only inevitable that the next Pope will come from the Third World; it would be an insult to the faithful if the Sacred College chose an Italian or even a First World candidate as the next Pope.

We will all have to face the enormous sense of loss which the present Pope's death will create; already George Weigel, his American biographer, has suggested that he will be known to history as John Paul the Great.

The Sacred College will inevitably be looking for a replacement who can continue his work. One kind of candidate could be a doughty fighter for the Church's interests, such as Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace who was imprisoned for 13 years.

The other kind of candidate is likely be somebody who has been closely involved with John Paul in giving effect to his policies, Giovanni Battista Re, a diplomat and assistant secretary of state, was the first to receive the red hat at the recent consistory; he clearly enjoys the spe.cial notice that the young Cardinal Wojtyla had from Paul VI, and his position in the Curia suggests a faint echo of Giovanni Battista Montini's own relationship with John XXIII.

As the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel to vote for the 261st successor to St Peter there will be much speculation about the charismatic qualities of the leading papabile, their political touch, diplomatic skills, even their health (nobody wants another short reign like that of John Paul I). It will be said that the successful candidate must

speak Latin, Italian, English and Spanish, but the one characteristic which will be little mentioned is holiness. This is because nobody without a deep spiritual life could be considered for the job in the first place; but it is also because the Church once made

a disastrous choice.

In 1294, after a two-year deadlock, the cardinals chose Peter of Morrone, a holy and charismatic founder of an order of hermit monks, known as the Celestines. Peter was deeply distressed when news of his election was brought to his cell. He was 85 years old

and, as he soon publicly admitted, had limited intelli

gence, experience and training. He spoke such poor Latin that people had to address him in Italian.

Declining to move to Rome, he surrounded himself with unsophisticated members of his order, reduced the papal administration to chaos and was firmly under the political influence of the King of Naples and Sicily. Celestine reigned only five months before being encouraged to abdicate (almost certainly ille gally) after he had announced that he was taking the whole of Advent off to pray. Naively, he expected to be allowed to returned to his cell on Mount Marrone. But his able succes sor Boniface VIII feared that he might be persuaded that the abdication was a mistake and, after he made an unsuccessful attempt to flee to Greece, the former Pope ended his days in protective custody.

History has been ambivalent about Celestine. Dante consigned him to the nether regions in The Divine Comedy; Petrarch praised his humility. In 1313 he was canonised. But the Church has been wary ever since of choosing a man who was simply holy. This does not mean, of course, that the cardinals will not be on the lookout for any clear manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the course of their deliberations. Such are the mysterious ways...

David Twiston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph

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