The Pope, the Church and Change

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The handicapping of the next pope has already begun, if in hushed tones. Carlo Maria Martini, the 72-year-old Archbishop of Milan, is a favorite with the liberals; fellow Italian Camillo Ruini, 68, is a coalition-friendly conservative. A Brazilian, 73-year-old Lucia Moreira Neves, is said to be John Paul’s own favorite -– and most likely to continue the aggressively internationalist trend that this pontiff has begun. "There are two lines of thinking in the Vatican right now about who it might be," says TIME Rome bureau chief Greg Burke. "One is that the mold has been forever broken, that the next pope could be from anywhere," he says. "The other is that it’s time to return to an Italian. Of course, that seems to be the line of the Italians." Considering the ages of the likely candidates, the next Pope is unlikely to be a 20-year man; certainly it seems impossible that any of them could bring the charisma -– and inspire the love –- that a certain unknown Pole did back in 1979. When John Paul II passes, he will have left red shoes all but impossible to fill.

For all the adoring crowds and all the political world-shaking, though, John Paul has not been able to solve all of the Catholic Church’s problems with modernity. Quite possibly, he has created some. John Paul II has appointed more than three quarters of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor, as well as a great number of bishops worldwide who will one day become cardinals –- ensuring that this pope’s strict conservatism will likely dominate church doctrine for generations to come.

Membership in the Roman Catholic Church is at 1 billion and on the rise, but its market share of the world’s population is shrinking. In Africa and Asia, the church’s "workforce" –- the number of priests and nuns -– is increasing, a sure sign of John Paul’s road-warrior evangelizing and media savvy. But in North America and Europe, the number of the truly committed is decreasing, which may be a sign that his staunch refusal to compromise is turning First World Catholics into something of a spectator church, professing faith but ignoring doctrine. Such developments lead to dilution, and dilution to factions. What factions so often lead to may remind papal historians that the last non-Italian pope was the first to confront the effects of Martin Luther.

If John Paul brought the Vatican to parts of the world that were beginning to doubt its interest in them, he nevertheless brought a Vatican whose terms remain strict and its own. It is a Catholicism that stands, on the ideological spectrum, far to the right of what many of even its devotees would like it to be, and thanks to John Paul’s appointees it is not likely to budge. In answer to the forces of liberalism, John Paul II has stacked the deck.

But first, a year-long 2000 birthday party for the man who started it all. The first day of the new millennium –- and you don’t hear John Paul, the first celebrity pope, splitting holy hairs about January 1, 2000, not technically being the millennium –- is the kickoff of the Jubilee, a celebration that might have been just another musty Vatican ceremonial if Karol Wojtyla hadn’t come along. Under John Paul II, thanks to countless hours and countless lire, it’s more like a worldwide, millennium’s-end sales event. "He’s determined to make it a time for conversion, diocese by diocese," says Burke. "To him, it’s an incredible historical opportunity to spread the Catholic Church’s message to a world that needs it more than ever."

With the century ticking to a close, its most sensational, hard-charging, consciousness-raising pope is growing weak. Early on in his papacy, a colleague predicted he’d be around for the turning of the Big Odometer, and John Paul took it -– and the Jubilee that would mark it -- very seriously. The next 20 years, from his precedent-bending inaugural speech from the Vatican balcony to his two-week pilgrimage to thank his first flock, were a run-up to this, a global celebration of humanity and the faith 1 billion of them hold dear. He worked tirelessly to bring his church everywhere it was wanted, and insisted just as tirelessly that this church would still be recognizable to him when he was done. He is tired now. But unswerving Catholics, anyway, shouldn’t be too worried. As much as John Paul II has done in 21 years, as much as he still plans to do -– even a vengeful, Old Testament God wouldn’t take him now.

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