New York Times
April 16, 2005
VATICAN CITY, April 15 - For 455 years, the papacy passed uninterrupted from one Italian to another until the election of the Polish pope, John Paul II. Now, after 26 years, many Italians think it is time to get back in office - for fear that changes in the Roman Catholic Church may close the door on them for good.
As 115 cardinals from 52 countries prepare to enter a conclave on Monday to select the next pope, some Vatican historians believe that the election of another foreigner will conclude a historic shift of power away from Italy. According to this school of thought, the papacy needs to mirror Catholicism's move to the Southern Hemisphere, where the ranks are growing in Africa and Latin America while shrinking in Europe.
Few church experts think that another loss for the Italians will knock them out as papal contenders for good, but it seems sure once and for all to shatter the idea, reinforced by so many centuries of dominance, that Italians are preternaturally the best men for the job.
Some here think that would be a mistake.
"There is a vocation, an Italian charisma," said Vittorio Messori, an Italian writer who collaborated on John Paul's 1994 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." "The Italians have a tradition of centuries behind them, they know how to do the job of pope, it's in their DNA."
Well, until now, anyway. "Another non-Italian pope would confirm Italy's decline," said Giovanni Maria Vian, a Vatican scholar at La Sapienza University of Rome. "It would mean Italy has lost its central role in papal succession."
There are signs that Italy is resisting such a trend, seeking to reclaim its traditional hold and add to the 212 popes it has had in the church's history.
The 20 Italians who will enter next week's conclave still constitute the largest bloc of cardinals for any single nation, and a handful have emerged as frontrunners among those being considered for the papacy. In recent years, as the pope's health waned, a number of them maintained a high level of visibility and weighed in on major issues and challenges facing the church.
Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, 71, the archbishop of Milan, released his major work on bio-ethics as an e-book. Cardinal Angelo Scola, 63, the archbishop of Venice, started a magazine last month promoting dialogue with Muslims, and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, 74, the vicar of Rome, published a book criticizing secularism.
There also seems to be a more subtle campaign, on the part of Italians as a whole, to recast John Paul as one of their own.
Cardinal Ruini presided over a memorial Mass for the pope last week, delivering an uncharacteristically charismatic performance in which he noted that John Paul had entered "so deeply into the hearts of Romans, but also Italians."
Italy's capital, too, has staked its claim, plastering the streets with posters announcing, "Rome mourns its pope." The College of Cardinals also decided that the pope's final resting place should be in St. Peter's crypt, instead of his native Poland.
Regardless of how much Rome may claim John Paul as its own, the fact remains that he was a pope with global appeal, and his enormous personality and long reign left an indelible stamp on the papacy.
"Wojtyla became the church himself, people identified him with it," said Pietro Scoppola, an Italian Vatican expert, using John Paul's name before he became pope. "An Italian could step back and let the church step forward."
Indeed, some Vatican analysts argue that a shift back to an Italian pope may be necessary to properly govern the Curia, or church government, because few have as intimate a knowledge of the inner workings of the Vatican bureaucracy, which manages the daily operations of the church and which John Paul largely ignored.
But an Italian cardinal, Fiorenzo Angelini, who is 88 and too old to vote in the conclave, seemed to disagree in an interview this week with Corriere della Sera of Milan.
"Our perception of the church has broadened, to the point of reaching really global dimensions," he said. "You can't reason any more with a national mentality, and not even a Continental one."
The largest growth of Roman Catholics in 2003, the last year Vatican statistics are available, was in Africa, followed by Asia and South America. Only in Europe did the number of Catholics fail to rise.
"The center of the church, from a sociological point of view, is not in Italy," said Giancarlo Zizola, author of "Conclave: History and Secrets," a study of how popes have been selected. "The world has changed, and it is normal that the church change too. There is good chance now of the first non-European pope in a very long time, and that would be significant."
Greek and Syrian popes reigned at the early stages of the nearly 2,000-year history of the church, and the French all but moved the Vatican to Avignon in the 1400's.
Since Adrian VI, a pope from Holland, died in 1523, the Italians have held a tight grip on papal power, through the rise and fall of the Papal States and two world wars. But in 1978, the year of John Paul's election, that all changed.
Wherever the pope is from, one thing is certain, and it is something that Pope John Paul instantly grasped during that first papal address from the balcony of St. Peter's so many years ago, when he spoke to the Roman crowd in what he called "our Italian language."
"Those who don't speak Italian are out," said Mr. Messori, the writer. "It's like wanting to be the secretary general of U.N. and not speaking English."