Quis Papem?

Pope John Paul II's brief illness this week brought into the open a debate that has been raging for years in the sanctified corridors of the Vatican: Who will be the next pope? Rome's College of Cardinals has been burning up the DSLs (Divine Subscriber Lines), and cardinals across the world say lobbying and intriguing in the race to succeed the pope has gotten white hot. Several “papabile,” or electable candidates, have emerged:

1. Belgian Jean-Paul Georges Ringaud, cardinal archbishop of the sprawling industrial diocese of Sprout to the east of Brussels, is widely considered to be the standard-bearer for the left-liberal wing of the Church.

Cardinal Ringaud wants to reach out to other denominations by canonizing Martin Luther and naming the first Jewish cardinal. He would make the use of birth control a sacrament and declare a Feast of the Contraception. He sees no reason why the faithful should not be allowed to attend Mass via cell phone or Blackberry. A biblical scholar by training, Ringaud shares with reformist Dutch and German theologians progressive views on the interpretation of the Gospels, the most dramatic being the possibility -- according to the latest biblical research -- that Jesus of Nazareth was actually a woman. Cardinal Ringaud welcomes the hypothesis; as he has said, the world is ready for a “Ms.-iah.” He is well-known in his native Belgium for leading congregations in a prayer he penned himself. “The Maternostra (Our Mother).” This jibes with another of his convictions, namely that the Church has not apologized to nearly enough injured groups -- for instance, to all women for the existence of all men. His first act as pope would be to abolish the papacy.

2. Champion of the right is Cardinal Otto von der Vogelweide, bishop of the diocese of Holy Spear in the Austrian Alps. Cardinal von der Vogelweide first came to prominence with a brilliant and forceful dissertation arguing that the dark matter, or “anti-matter,” that astrophysicists now contend may constitute up to two-thirds of the universe's mass is, in fact, Satan. In Rome, he consolidated his conservative bona fides as head of the Curia's secretive but powerful Office for the Suppression of Curiosity. He is convinced that the Church's current malaise can be laid at the door of resurgent heresy and has called for random dogma tests of Catholic clergy by crack SWAT (Sacred Word Acquiescence Testing) teams. He would enforce their findings by reinstituting the auto-da-fé. His first act as pope would be to reopen the trial of Galileo.

3. A surprisingly popular dark-horse candidate -- some say the front-runner -- is curial insider Cardinal Portofino Campari-Martini. Campari-Martini focuses almost entirely on reforms within the College of Cardinals itself. His proposals include a 200-percent pay raise for all cardinals, a hefty increase in their weekly wine allowance, and employing much younger, slimmer nuns in secretarial and domestic posts. These proposals have drawn tremendous support; insiders believe that Campari-Martini will make a strong showing on early ballots. His first act as pope would be to abolish the college's notorious Alpha-Omega fraternity, whose new pledges are traditionally subjected to ribald Latin hazing and paddling by senior cardinals.

4. A less likely but prominent contender is the charismatic Cardinal Pietro Prodigioso, known as Padre Pepino, or “the barefoot cardinal.” Cardinal Prodigioso refuses to enter the city limits of Rome and is widely regarded as a saint in his native Calabria, which he peregrinates ceaselessly in his socks. His used pairs of socks are revered as living relics; numerous miracles have been attributed to their touch. The barefoot cardinal has called for the Church to sell everything it owns, from stocks to artworks, and burn the billions realized in a gigantic bonfire in St. Peters Square. For that, he says, he'd go to Rome. He has massive support amongst the faithful but almost none in the college.

5. Cardinal Aloysius McGillycuddy of Ranting-on-the-Liffy in the Republic of Ireland has attracted unexpected support - -much of it from North American bishops -- with his single-issue candidacy: to make abortion both a capital crime and the biblically endorsed “sin against the Holy Ghost.”

6. Cardinal Joan (pronounced HO-WAN) Casal Garcia Montez, archbishop of the far-flung diocese of Sao Teria in northern Brazil, is another candidate hugely popular among the laity but little-known in Rome. The cardinal, who readily admits that he was once a nightclub dancer in Rio, is widely rumored to have undergone a transsexual operation, though in which direction is hotly debated. Just as hotly debated is whether a pope named Joan would be good or bad for the 21st-century Church.

The college is also discussing modernization of the papal electoral process itself, which takes place in sealed conclave, closed to all outsiders including the media. Traditionally the conclave's only communication with the outside world has been in the form of smoke signals sent by a stove inside the consistory. Black smoke means no choice has been made, white that the Church has a new pope. The college wants to expand this system. For instance, red smoke would indicate that two or more cardinals had been involved in a fistfight; blue that the cardinals are feeling really down right now; red, white, and green (the colors of the Italian flag) that the cardinals have an immediate need for pizza.

Tony Hendra is an author and an actor. His best-selling book, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, was published last year by Random House.

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