From the outset of his pontificate, Pope Francis has predicted that he would have a short reign, and now a leading Vatican watcher has profiled a series of likely candidates to take his place when the time comes.
Writing for Crux, an online Catholic news site operated by the Boston Globe, veteran Vatican journalist John Allen has gotten rumor mills churning by laying out a list of “papabili” (roughly translated as “popeables”), based on a recent internal election from within the synod of bishops. The bishops elected 12 prelates to the “Ordinary Council” that will guide synod operations until the next general assembly.
A couple of recent falls during papal events along with stories of an alleged brain tumor in October have combined to put the question of succession on people’s minds. Moreover, just over a year ago, Pope Francis said that “knew” his pontificate “will last only a short time.”
“Two or three years and then I’ll be off to the Father’s house,” he said.
In that same interview, Francis hinted that he might also consider an early retirement, if the situation presented itself. He defended Benedict’s decision to retire, adding that, if he were in a similar situation, “I would do the same.”
In his analysis of the significance of the synod elections, Allen offers a series of important caveats, noting that “elections to a synod council are an inexact measure of who might get a look in a papal conclave.”
The synod didn’t include all the cardinals, for instance, so some plausible candidates might not have been present. In addition, only cardinals will vote for a future pope, whereas all the bishops in the synod voted for the council.
Despite these provisos, the election was still significant, Allen contends, because it’s “about the only time that possible future popes face an open ballot among their fellow prelates.”
Looking at the twelve elected prelates, Allen notes a pretty even split between conservatives and progressives that presents “a picture of a divided body of bishops.”
To bridge the gap, Allen looked for possible crossover candidates who could draw from both camps. One such candidate is the 70-year-old Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who is fairly well liked and esteemed by both conservatives and progressives.
Another is the 71-year-old Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, whom Allen calls “a compelling personality.”
Among the candidates from Africa and the developing world, Allen’s money is on Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, with Turkson being the more likely because of his appeal to conservatives given his hard line on Islamic extremism.
There’s an old saying in Rome that whoever enters a conclave as pope comes out as a cardinal, meaning that predictions of the outcome of papal elections are notoriously fallible.
At the same time, the fact that people are already bouncing around names of candidates to succeed Francis is a good reminder that no pope lasts forever.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.