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Papabile: An Endangered Species

It is said, by more than one Vaticanist, that the Vatican has entered accounting season. The seasons are all the faster as the Pontiff gets older and stays in hospital more often. It can be said, without exaggerating too much, that not a day passes without high prelates making and repeating their eminent calculations in view of the next conclave.

Summarizing the state of mind of the Sacred College, a commentator, referring to the last days of French Algeria, explains: “Regime change is coming, and no matter what course, conservative or progressive, one thing is certain: the ‘machinery’ of Francis’s pontificate will be dismantled. Until then, like the pieds noirs in Algiers, we sit on the terrace of restaurants waiting for the noise of the next explosion.”

Explosions targeting the most prominent porporati of the moment: Ed Condon, editor of the religious news site The Pillar, explained in May 2023 how attacks on the high prelates of the Curia have become so common that a Brazilian archbishop, Ilson de Jesus Montanari, has reportedly refused to be appointed Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, because he feared becoming a “rabbit in the middle of a shooting range.”

Not without reason considering the destiny of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle: promoted in 2019 to Patron of the prestigious Propaganda Fide – the current Dicastery for the Evangelization of the People – the high Filipino prelate, classified as “center-left,” was touted as being one of the most prominent papabili. But after being forced to leave the presidency of Caritas, his good fortune was suddenly tarnished by the media, which questioned his management and decision-making capacities.

A similar fate happened to a conservative, Cardinal Péter Erdő. The Primate of Hungary became a leading person in Rome, thanks to the success of the Pope’s apostolic journey to his country, a journey without any missteps of which he was the architect. But criticism has been levelled at Bishop Erdő’s closeness to the late Cardinal George Pell – an enemy of Francis – and even mocking the fact that the Hungarian cardinal sometimes rode around in a limousine.

Even Cardinal Matteo Zuppi seems to bear the brunt of this harmful atmosphere: the Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) – and a member of the Sant’Egidio community – has just returned from Kyiv and Moscow as part of a peace mediation, and voices are raised to find that “the cardinal is getting ‘too big for his boots.’”

In order to avoid the “snipers” who hunt them, often from the apostolic palaces, potential papabili understand that they should to opt for a form “of relative invisibility.”

In this context, as Ed Condon explains, the voters of the next conclave might get the impression – and perhaps this is what is sought – that no candidate is capable of succeeding Pope Francis.

“He who enters the conclave as pope, leaves it as a cardinal,” says a popular Roman adage. The question in this period of the current pontificate is whether there are still papabili within the Sacred College. For it seems that everything is being done in Rome to discredit the figures of the “right” as well as the “left” who are likely to succeed Pope Francis.


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