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Rumors, speculation swirl in Rome as conclave to pick pope nears

ROME—The nine-day hiatus between the burial of a pope and the shuttered silence of the conclave to elect a new one is a time of mourning and reflection for the cardinal electors of the Roman Catholic Church.

It's also a time when rumors fly, when Vatican-watchers engage in perilous speculation about who's ascendant among the papabili—or "pope-able" cardinals—and when any cardinal with ambitions tests the waters.

Last week's rumor: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, reputed by some to be the front-runner, put a media gag on U.S. cardinals. The rumor, which the famously severe head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denied, probably was floated to "torpedo" him, George Weigel, the official biographer of the late Pope John Paul II, said Thursday in an interview.

Joining Ratzinger this week with front-runner status was Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's businesslike secretary of state, which Weigel suggested may be a sign that the cardinal-electors "don't want an adventurer" like the globe-trotting Pope John Paul II.

Rather, he said, the conclave might want a pope who'll focus more on the internal workings of the Vatican and the needs of particular regions, which even admirers such as Weigel admit that John Paul neglected.

The 115 cardinals who'll vote on the next pope—and who are the candidates for the job—represent a host of agendas and constituencies in this far-flung church. There's no way to determine if a decisive issue or a consensus front-runner has emerged.

But many topics are likely to color their deliberations.

One question is whether the next pope should be from within the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia, or be the head of an archdiocese. To some observers, that points to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome: a conservative who's close to the Vatican but perhaps just enough outside it.

Ruini, on the other hand, has a different set of priorities. He says the "challenge of Islam" is the most important issue the church faces, and he wants a pope who can "engage" it. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Progresso, Ruini said his support was going to Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay, India.

Dias is an accomplished member of the Vatican's diplomatic corps who's served as its representative to Russia and other Eastern European nations. He's also an Asian, which might be immensely appealing in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But the outgoing Dias is also among those cardinals Weigel counts as a likely "adventurer."

Then there are cardinals who point to the drastic decline of Catholic identity in Europe and say the next pope must be able to engage with secularism, postmodernism and such bioethical challenges as cloning, embryonic stem-cell research and end-of-life care.

Among the men cited as having the skills to face the challenges of contemporary culture is Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, a gracious and energetic intellectual. That three popes of the last century—Pius XII, John XXIII and John Paul I—were all archbishops of Venice could work in his favor.

Might merely being a Venetian tip the balance in this conclave? No one knows.

Right now Italian media reports put Ratzinger in the lead. "But what does that mean?" Weigel said. "He may have a simple majority, but he needs two-thirds, and he hasn't got that yet."

Whatever might be going on among the cardinals, some rough politics is being played in the rumor mill.

A few days ago, a rumor began here that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, once turned over two Jesuit priests to the Argentine military government, and that the priests had vanished and were presumed dead.

Calls to Amnesty International and to the Argentine Jesuit community revealed that the men never were abducted and are alive and well, still working in Argentina.

The handicapping surely will intensify over the weekend.

Speculation surrounds Latin American cardinals: Claudio Hummes of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City and Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras, all identified as part of the church's "social justice" wing.

Rodriguez and Hummes appear to have scored points with cardinals by calling for greater "collegiality" in the leadership of the church, meaning less central authority and micromanaging by Rome and more local autonomy for the dioceses and bishops' conferences.

But how to choose? The shy, cerebral Hummes seems to be a "manager" and doesn't speak English. Rodriguez, an extrovert who speaks eight languages including English—and flies his own plane—seems to fit the definition of "adventurer" just about perfectly.

There's an oft-quoted saying that "he who goes in a papabile comes out a cardinal," but it isn't always true. Cardinal Eugenio Paceilli was the favorite going into the conclave of 1939, and he emerged as Pius XII. Giovanni Montini was tops on the list in 1963 and stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica as Pope Paul VI.

But the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, was on almost no one's short list at the conclave of 1978. He, of course, emerged as John Paul II.

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(O'Reilly reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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