Cover Story: The September Pope

John Paul I's sudden death stuns and saddens the Christian world

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The prevailing wisdom in the last election was that Italy lay in such precarious straits that an Italian Pope was needed to deal with the problems. Conditions have hardly improved but some Cardinals are wondering if an outsider might not do as well. One who almost certainly could is Jean Cardinal Villot, the Camerlengo for both the papal interregnums. In his home country of France, Villot served capably as both Coadjutor Bishop and Archbishop of Lyon before becoming Secretary of State to Pope Paul VI. In the last election his age would have posed no difficulty, but this time, though he is in excellent health at 72, he may be considered a bit too old.

There are younger pastoral foreigners. One of them was the late Pope John Paul's candidate during the last election for the job —Brazil's Aloisio Cardinal Lorscheider, a Franciscan friar who is Archbishop of Fortaleza. A social progressive but a theological moderate, Lorscheider is only 53—a disadvantage last time around. Youth should help this time, but fellow Cardinals are likely to worry about the fact that Cardinal Lorscheider has had open-heart surgery.

Two other non-Italians who figured in the dark-horse stakes last time may now be fading for reasons other than health. Argentina's Eduardo Cardinal Pironio, 57, no longer seems too young, but in his post as head of the Vatican's congregation for religious orders, he has neither the appeal of a pastor nor the clout of a Curial insider. The old Roman tie, however, recently deemed so valuable for a candidate, may diminish the chances of Utrecht's Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, 68. Willebrands has been doing double duty since 1975 as Primate of Holland, but he is identified with Rome because he has been in the Christian Unity Secretariat for 18 years—and still commutes there regularly as its head.

If the Cardinals in this new conclave are to reach across Italy's borders in a bold break with four centuries of tradition, the gesture should serve a more dramatic purpose, like finding the sort of loving and fervent priest they have just lost. One Cardinal who could meet that need is Britain's Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, a Benedictine monk who was once Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey. Few Cardinals knew Hume at all until last month's election, but in Rome many came away from encounters with him admiring his evident spirituality, eloquence and warm presence. Hume's age—55—was a major disadvantage in August, but probably would not be held against him so much now. If anyone can fill John Paul's empty shoes, it might be this tall, rangy, soft-smiling Englishman.

There will be other names bruited about before the conclave begins next week, and there may be other forces, yet to coalesce, that will shape the Cardinals' ultimate decision. Just now, the church that John Paul leaves behind grieves and wonders, but there is solace in its centuries of experience, and a mission that endures and heals. As Bishop Daniel Cronin of Fall River, Mass., put it: "People have to stop and sort of redo things, but basically the work of caring for souls goes on. Every priest is in his parish, people are able to approach the altar, the bishops are among their people. The church goes on."

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