Conservatives make first move to claim legacy
The “princes” of the Catholic church will today begin the arcane and protracted process of bidding farewell to Pope John Paul II and finding a successor in what is likely to become a battle for the soul of the world’s largest Christian denomination.
Most of the 117 cardinals who will elect the new pope will file into a so-called “congregation” in the Vatican this morning to fix a date for the start of the conclave that will choose the next pontiff. Under church law, it cannot begin in less than two weeks from the date of the Pope’s death.
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The cardinals will hear the Pope’s will and finalise funeral arrangements – expected later this week – for the third-longest reigning pontiff in history, who died on Saturday evening. It is not yet known where he wishes to be buried.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s “prime minister”, yesterday launched a campaign for the sanctification of the late Pope when he referred to him as John Paul “the Great”, a title only bestowed on three pontiffs from the dark ages, all of whom were canonised. He inserted the term in the text of his homily at a requiem mass in St Peter’s Square, but mysteriously held back from uttering the words.
His words appeared to represent an attempt by the church’s conservative wing to lay claim to John Paul’s legacy, to block any swing towards a more progressive papacy in the conclave.
Meanwhile, the US president, George Bush, leading world tributes, staked a claim to the Pope’s legacy, enlisting him as a “champion of human freedom”, notwithstanding John Paul II’s outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq. “The Catholic church has lost its shepherd,” the president said.
Mr Bush will be among some 200 world leaders attending the funeral.
In London, Clarence House insisted, however, that Friday’s wedding of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles will go ahead, even if the dates clash.
Tony Blair said in a televised statement: “Even if you’re not a Catholic, even if you’re not a Christian, in fact, even if you have no religious faith at all, what people could see in Pope John Paul was a man of true and profound spiritual faith, a shining example of what that faith should mean.”
The Vatican said the late pontiff had died at 9.37pm local time on Saturday of septic shock and heart failure. Officials did not resort to the traditional methods of establishing the Pope’s death by knocking on his head with a silver hammer or placing a cloth over his face to test his breathing. Instead, they subjected his body to 20 minutes of electro-cardiograph tests.
The process was supervised by Eduardo Marti’nez Somalo, the Spanish cardinal who holds the title of chamberlain of the Holy Roman church. He removed the Fisherman’s Ring from the pope’s finger and sealed the papal apartments to ensure nothing was removed.
John Paul II’s embalmed corpse was placed on display in the Apostolic Palace so that prelates, diplomats and Italian government officials could pay their last respects. The body will be moved to St Peter’s Basilica amid great pomp this afternoon to lie in state. The Prefect of Rome said it would stay there for three to four days.
Officials in Rome said they were bracing for an influx of around 2 million Catholics from other parts of Italy and the world.
Perhaps the most startling tribute came from Cuba’s President Fidel Castro, who expressed condolences and declared three days of official mourning. There were also messages from Mikhail Gorbachev, who described the late Pope as “humanitarian number one on the planet”.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, struck a cooler note. He said John Paul’s “spiritual and political legacy had been deservedly valued by humanity”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, called the pontiff, who died aged 84, “one of the great Christian leaders of the 20th century and perhaps in retrospect one of the very greatest”.
The campaigning singer, Bono, described John Paul II as “the first funky pope”.
The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, said: “I hope the cardinals will follow the first non-Italian by electing the first African pope.”
Today’s meeting of cardinals will be the first at which they will discuss the issues facing the global Roman Catholic church. But first they must see to age-honoured procedures.
They will arrange for the destruction of the papal ring and other seals to ensure that no further pronouncements or instructions are issued under the authority of John Paul II.