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Papal appointments surprise experts

Claire Heininger | Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Fueling already-circulating speculations about his declining health, Pope John Paul II, 83, surprised the Catholic community Sept. 29 when he appointed 31 new cardinals – the group that will choose his successor – months earlier than originally expected.

Last Sunday’s announcement came three weeks in advance of the week-long Vatican celebrations of the pope’s 25th anniversary, which will now coincide with the consistory ceremony in which the new cardinals are installed. While Vatican officials gave no specific explanation for the consistory’s earlier date, which is set for Oct. 21, two Notre Dame experts on Vatican issues said they believe the announcement reflected a combination of John Paul II’s poor health, his intention to ensure his continued legacy and his eagerness to make these celebrations special.

“I think he knows he is coming to the end of his life, and he wanted to reward certain bishops for their loyalty and service,” said Father Richard McBrien, professor of theology and Crowley-O’Brien Chairman of Theology at Notre Dame. “At the same time, perhaps [he wanted] to ensure that his successor … will carry on his program. Combining the 25th anniversary celebration, the beatification of Mother Teresa on the 19th, and the consistory of new cardinals simply makes it more convenient for cardinals visiting Rome for these closely scheduled events.”

Lawrence Cunningham, acting O’Brien Chairman and professor of theology, agreed that all of these factors should be taken into consideration when interpreting the pope’s decision.

“I suspect that it was primarily for health reasons,” he said. “Secondarily, he may have wanted to do something dramatic on the eve of these papacy celebrations.”

Pope John Paul II’s selection of new cardinals revealed his willingness to extend his conservative influence, as well as his goal to increase awareness of the Catholic presence in countries where Muslim-Christian tensions are high.

“The new cardinals fit the profile of the kind of people he’s traditionally chosen: doctrinally orthodox but socially conscious,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham also emphasized the global nature of the selections, which included “appointments from all parts of the world – North America, Latin America, Africa, East Asia … it is clear that he recognizes the increasing Muslim presence.”

McBrien pointed out that “[his choices] are heavily weighted on the side of loyalists who will follow the policies of the Vatican, but there are some exceptions to that pattern.”

One somewhat unanticipated omission from the list was Archbishop Sean O’Malley, who replaced Cardinal Bernard Law as the archbishop of Boston after Law resigned in the wake of the church sex abuse scandals last December.

While Boston traditionally has had a cardinal in the past, both McBrien and Cunningham dismissed the idea that O’Malley’s absence is a significant exception.

“He just became an archbishop, and perhaps they didn’t want to burden him with various Vatican jobs that all cardinals are expected to occupy on a part-time basis, involving many trips to Rome,” McBrien said. “He’ll eventually be a cardinal.”

Cunningham suggested that “perhaps the pope didn’t want to take a slap at Law,” who, not yet 80 years old, is still eligible to elect the new pope and is also still acting as a member of several Vatican commissions.

Although Pope John Paul II’s announcement was read with halting breaths indicative of his Parkinson’s disease, both Vatican officials and Notre Dame experts expressed confidence that he would be able to participate fully in the ceremonies, which begin Oct. 19 and continue until Oct. 26.

“By all accounts, he is nearing the end of his life on this earth,” McBrien said. “But he has extraordinary powers of resilience, and he may very well be with us next spring.”