VATICAN CITY, Oct. 21 — Giving signature red hats to 30 new Roman Catholic cardinals, Pope John Paul II today put what may be the finishing touches on the group of men who will elect his successor.
The gilded ceremony in St. Peter’s Square capped a series of events here that yielded clues and speculation aplenty about the Roman Catholic Church after John Paul.
Over the last week, as scores of cardinals descended on Vatican City to celebrate his 25th anniversary as pope and watch their ranks expand, the dynamics that could determine the next pope came into sharper focus.
Those factors range from the philosophical to the practical and go well beyond divine inspiration, even though cardinals often express confidence that the Holy Spirit will ultimately guide them to their choice.
“It’s not that he’s sitting on the shoulder of every cardinal to blow in his ear what to do,” said Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, who is often mentioned as a possible candidate for pope.
“That’s for children,” Cardinal Danneels said.
With the conclusion of today’s ceremony, there are 135 cardinals who are under 80 years old and thus eligible to vote on John Paul’s successor, who is almost certain to be chosen from their ranks.
A few of those cardinals will probably lose the right to vote by turning 80, which nullifies their eligibility, before John Paul dies.
But there is a strong possibility, given the pope’s failing health and the usual three-year intervals between creating new cardinals, that the list of voters will not expand any more.
In recent days, several cardinals talked more than they often do about the current situation of — and future challenges for — the Roman Catholic Church.
One clear theme that emerged in interviews with many of them was the worry that church decision-making had become too centralized during the quarter century of John Paul’s reign.
That concern suggested that his successor would be someone who could be trusted not to hoard power in Vatican City. A cardinal who has made his career in the field might have a significant advantage over one who is entrenched and invested in the Catholic bureaucracy here.
“The main thing that the next pope has to be able to manage is collegiality,” said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Britain, using a favored Catholic buzzword for giving prelates outside of Vatican City more authority and influence.
By the interpretation of many Catholics, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council called for that.
Asked to grade the pope’s application of that prescription, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said he would pluck his response from a proverb about a curate who renders an optimistic, diplomatic judgment on the taste of a rotten egg.
“Good in parts,” the cardinal said.
The next pope is unlikely to be liberal in his interpretation of church teachings and traditions regarding the vow of celibacy, the ordination of women or homosexuality.
That is because John Paul has not been liberal on those issues, and he has appointed all but five of the 135 cardinals who are currently eligible to vote in the next conclave.
But in other ways, the next pope could lead the church in a new direction.
Several cardinals said the chances of naming a non-European pope had increased, both because John Paul had broken the long Italian grip on the position and because the church was expanding most rapidly in the southern hemisphere.
“It’s quite likely that the cardinals will look at a much wider horizon in choosing the next pope,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said.
But the church’s changing center of gravity is not yet fully reflected in the geographic distribution of its leaders.
Of the 135 eligible cardinals, 66 are from Europe, while only 50 are from Latin America, Africa and Asia combined.
Many Vatican officials say privately that Italians, who represent 23 of the eligible cardinals, could be poised to take over the papacy anew, for one simple but compelling reason.
“They’ve spent 25 years figuring out how to,” said one Vatican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the length of John Paul’s reign. His election ended more than 450 years of Italian domination.
Vatican officials, church experts and cardinals cite several other ways in which John Paul’s shadow could influence the choice of his successor.
They say that until the last few years he was such a natural and vibrant performer, with such a zest for travel, that his successor probably cannot be a reticent technocrat who shrinks from the spotlight.
“The style of the church changed,” said Cardinal Achille Silvestrini of Italy.
John Paul also speaks at least eight languages competently and has demonstrated how useful that can be, creating a tough act to follow.
At a news conference here last week, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, who is often mentioned as a potential pope, segued effortlessly from German to English, then from English to French.
Asked if a pope needed to be linguistically nimble, the cardinal smiled slyly and said, “There are excellent translators around.”
The length of John Paul’s reign, now the fourth longest in the church’s history, could dissuade cardinals from choosing someone as young as he was when he became pope. John Paul was 58 back then.
At the same time, the experience of watching an aged John Paul struggle through public events could steer cardinals away from choosing someone too old — and too potentially close to infirmity.
“There’s something very strange in the fact that he’s there, and he’s diminished, and we’re applauding around him,” Cardinal Danneels said, referring to John Paul’s condition. “For a man who was so athletic, it must be humiliating.”
He said that cardinals would probably “elect someone who has good health.”
Beyond that, there are few reliable weather vanes and even fewer smart guesses, which is why at least two dozen men in addition to Cardinal Schonborn, 58, and Cardinal Danneels, 70, get mentioned as prospects for the papacy.
Cardinals say that the next pope will have to be someone well suited to the most significant challenges that the church faces.
But no two cardinals name the same challenges in the same order.
Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, drew attention to the growth of Islam in the world. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, talked about the need to get North American and Western European Catholics to do more than just drop into church on Sunday.
Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, the former archbishop of Detroit, highlighted increasingly stark global disparities between rich and poor.
But Cardinal Szoka, now the chief administrator of Vatican City, suggested that the field of possible popes could be narrowed in one way: by excluding Americans.
“The United States is not the most loved country in the world right now,” he said.