Praying at the shrine of Lourdes, France, a few weeks ago, 84-year-old Pope John Paul II stunned listeners with his words: "As I kneel here at the grotto of Massabielle, I realize with emotion that I have reached the end of my pilgrimage." They drew the obvious conclusion—that the pope believes he is near the end of his life.
A Vatican spokesman was quick to deny this idea a few days later, claiming that the pontiff meant only that he had reached the shrine and was therefore at the end of his pilgrimage.
But Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien (who was with the pope at Lourdes) said he was deeply affected by witnessing the pope's physical struggles to get through his official duties. Aides had to assist the pope to kneel at the grotto, and then had to catch him when he began to fall over while praying. Upon returning to Edinburgh, O'Brien asked Catholics to pray for the pope's health.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium (often mentioned as a possible successor to John Paul) was more blunt. "The pope is seriously weakened. When [he] says, 'I end my pilgrimage here,' [that could be understood as] his farewell to Lourdes and maybe to his life" ("Cardinal Hears Farewell in John Paul's Remarks," The International Herald Tribune, Aug. 17, 2004).
The Vatican did not comment on Danneels' assessment, although it likely did not appreciate them. No stranger to outspoken comments, Danneels angered the Vatican a few years ago by suggesting that the pope might step down due to his health.
John Paul suffers from severe arthritis in one knee that prevents him from walking. But it appears that the Parkinson's disease from which he also suffers has advanced to the point that it makes him too unstable to walk even if he didn't have the arthritis. And he has had numerous intestinal complaints, stemming from two abdominal gunshot wounds in 1981, a large tumor removed in the early 1990s and, perhaps, from Parkinson's.
Speculation surfaces periodically that John Paul may not have long to live. But his comments and evident weakness when in Lourdes fanned the rumors anew.
What happens when a pope dies?
Every pope has the equivalent of a chief of staff, called the camerlengo. When a pope dies, the camerlengo must first certify that he is indeed dead. The ritual tradition is to strike him on the forehead with a silver hammer, calling his baptismal name three times. An alternative is to place a cloth over his mouth. If he does not respond, the camerlengo declares him dead, authorizes a death certificate and then seals the papal living and working apartments.
Later, the silver hammer will be used to scratch and break the papal ring and seal, so no documents can be forged in his name.
All cardinals will hasten to Rome to undertake the administration of the interregnum, the period between popes. The only governing they do is attending to administrative matters, overseeing funeral arrangements for the deceased pope and electing his successor.
In times past, outsiders pressured the cardinals to choose a pope to suit one faction or another. Wars were even fought between different blocs, delaying the selection of a pope for years in some cases. Three years after the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, the cardinals still had not chosen a successor. Civil officials grew tired of waiting and locked the cardinals in their meeting place, tearing the roof off the building to expose the cardinals to the elements! Not surprisingly, they chose a new pope almost immediately!
That was Pope Gregory, who established a rule in 1274 that cardinals thenceforth were to be locked in with a key to avoid outside influence. The name of the process is a conclave, from the Latin com and clavis for, "with a key."
Today's conclave is very similar to what Gregory established. It is held in extreme secrecy in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Before the meetings begin, the chapel is swept several times for electronic eavesdropping devices—something the church did not have to worry about in the 13th century. When assured of privacy, the cardinals are locked into the chapel and the doors are sealed inside and out with keys and ribbons. Every participant takes a vow of complete secrecy.
The cardinals select three of their number to fill the role of scrutineers for every ballot. Everyone receives a piece of paper with Eligo in Summum Pontificem (Latin for "I select as Supreme Pontiff") printed on it. He writes his choice in disguised handwriting and folds the ballot over twice. Each then walks with his ballot, holding it high in the air, to where the scrutineers are seated. He places it on a plate and then tips the plate into a chalice, so all can see what he is doing.
After each vote, the scrutineers count the folded ballots to make sure they match the number of cardinals. (Only cardinals under the age of 80 at the time the pope dies are eligible to vote.) If the numbers don't match, the ballots are burned and not counted.
If they match, the first scrutineer takes them one by one and marks down the name. The second scrutineer does the same, creating a duplicate record. The third scrutineer pierces the "Eligo" on the counted ballot with a needle and thread, adding all ballots to a long string to ensure that they aren't accidentally counted more than once.
A two-thirds majority is necessary to elect a pope. If the vote is unsuccessful, all ballots and the string are burned in a stove with some chemical pellets that produce black smoke. The black smoke puffing from the chimney tells the world that there is no pope yet.
A second ballot is taken immediately. A third is taken in the afternoon or perhaps the next day. John Paul established a rule that allows the cardinals to choose a pope by simple majority if they haven't agreed upon one after 12 or 13 days.
When someone is chosen, he is approached and asked in Latin if he accepts. If he answers yes, he is asked by what name he wishes to be called. That follows a custom begun in 533 when a cardinal named Mercury was chosen as pope. The church did not think it appropriate for their leader to have the name of a pagan deity, so Mercury changed his name to honor a previous pope. Modern popes all do the same.
The successful ballot is burned with pellets that emit a white smoke, indicating that the church has a new leader. He is fitted with papal robes (several sizes are on hand) and immediately introduced to the waiting crowd in St. Peter's square.
The most important question about this subject is, who might be the next pope?
Looking for a man to be the pope
Vatican watchers coined the Italian term papabile (plural: papabili) to mean a cardinal who is a likely candidate for pope. The word candidate is perhaps misleading, for no one promotes himself for the office, and there are no nominations by interest blocs. Indeed it is against Catholic law for the cardinals to campaign!
But there is plenty of "unofficial" politicking. Technically, any male baptized Catholic is eligible to be chosen as pope, but for centuries, the cardinals have chosen one of their own. Cardinals interested in the position of pope make themselves available for special events or projects. Those who are known to be somewhat outspoken tone down their rhetoric. Those who are known to avoid the spotlight step into it a little.
Currently, some of the most often mentioned papal "possibles" are: Claudio Hummes, Brazil, age 69; Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Argentina, 66; Godfried Danneels, Belgium, 70; Francis Arinze, Nigeria, 71; Ivan Dias, India, 68; Walter Kapser, Germany, 71; Norberto Rivera Carrera, Mexico, 62; Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Honduras, 61; Christoph Schsnborn, Austria, 59; Dionigi Tettamanzi, Italy, 70; Giovanni Battista Re, Italy, 70; and Lubomyr Husar, Ukraine, 71.
The ability to speak many languages, including Italian, Latin and English, is a must. All of these men are multilingual.
Of course, the pope has to be above reproach, which may eliminate Rodriguez Maradiaga from the outset. He reportedly moved a pedophile priest from country to country to avoid prosecution and defiantly told the press: "I'd be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests" ("Report: 'Papal Successor' Moved Pedophile Priest," The Irish Examiner, June 21, 2004).
The cardinals will look for a man to be conservative, as John Paul has been—but maybe not quite so conservative. Tettamanzi is perhaps the most conservative of the papabili—some say to the point of being somewhat dull. The Vatican recently promoted him archbishop of Milan, which is tantamount to receiving a party nomination in Western political terms. To show he is a regular guy, he took a spin recently in a Formula One race car.
In this modern age, a pope must look good on television and in photographs. He must also be somewhat charismatic. Husar may not fit this marker, for he looks like a tribal patriarch of past centuries with his long uneven white beard and plain glasses.
The conventional wisdom is that they will select an older man, for a reign as long as John Paul's allows one man to have too much influence on the church. As it is, John Paul has appointed 95 percent of the voting cardinals, each handpicked with an eye on continuing his views and interests.
The challenges of the present world
Pope John Paul II has been a strong supporter and promoter of "one Christian Europe, from the Urals to the Atlantic." But the influence of the church is waning in Europe, which rejected any mention of its Christian roots in the EU Constitution—ignoring the appeal of the pope to include this acknowledgement.
France, called "the first daughter of the church" by John Paul on his first papal visit there, actually led the move to exclude any mention of Christianity. France is so non-Catholic that it is considered a mission field by the church!
One bright star for the Catholics is Poland. Polish seminaries are full and within a few years, one in three European priests will be Polish.
So, a priority for a new pope will be to strengthen the church's presence and influence in Europe. Several papabiliare European.
Prophecy shows that in the end time, a worldwide religious system will work closely with the political "beast" power That symbiotic relationship will propel the "false prophet" to an unparalleled position of worldwide power. For more information, please request our free booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled.
A new pope needs to be able to confront radical Islam and work with Muslims who are peaceful. Both the present crisis of radical Islamic terrorism and the reality of the mammoth size of the Muslim faith demand this. In 2000, 20 percent of the world's population was Muslim (about 1.19 billion) and their numbers grow at an annual rate of 2.13 percent. By contrast, approximately 1.06 billion were Roman Catholic, whose growth rate is 1.29 percent. Every 24 hours, there are 68,000 more Muslims and 37,000 more Roman Catholics (David A. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5).
The new pope also needs to represent Africa, one of the most conservative, as well as one of the fastest growing, Catholic regions in the world. There are over 100 million African Catholics, about 10 percent of the church's worldwide membership.
One papabile stands out in this regard, Francis Arinze of Nigeria. A black man, he was baptized by a black man who later became Nigeria's first candidate for Catholic sainthood. Arinze led the Vatican's office for interreligious affairs for decades and has a strong record of confronting radical Islam and works well with peaceful Muslims.
A black pope baptized by a black saint would be a bold stroke, perhaps too bold for a tradition-bound church. "White smoke for a black pope" is the catchphrase going around. But there is another proverb associated with the conclave: "Enter a pope, come out a cardinal," meaning those who seem likely candidates often are not chosen as pope.
Bible prophecy tells of an end-time church that has a seemingly Christlike appearance, but the voice of a different spirit. The enigmatic prophecies of the abomination of desolation and of one who sits in the temple and claims he is God also both relate to this developing story. You can read what the Bible says about them in our booklets You Can Understand Bible Prophecy and The Middle East in Bible Prophecy. WNP
To help you better understand the overview of prophecy, we have prepared several booklets. Please request The Book of Revelation Unveiled, The Middle East in Bible Prophecy and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.