“He wrote his name large across the history of the last generation,” said J.R. McCarthy, a Bronx native.”It will be difficult to find a replacement. We’re going to be missing John Paul II for a very long time, not just as a pope, but as a citizen of the world.
“I’d hate to be the man who has to fill his shoes.”
However, Ned McGinley, the national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, is optimistic about the outcome of the conclave that is due to meet on Monday.
“They did an excellent job with John XXIII, with Paul VI and of course with John Paul II,” he said. “I’m confident they’ll make the right decision.”
Whether consciously or not, conclaves have tended to select popes who were radically different from their immediate predecessors in terms of style, but that’s less likely to happen this time, according to some.
“I was just a teenager when he became a pope, but I remember enough to know that he revolutionized what we want and what we expect from a pope,” McCarthy said. “There isn’t going to be a formula for electing this pope. But it has to be somebody who is multilingual and who can occupy a place on the world stage.”
Sally Regenhard of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign said that the John Paul II’s reign was “unprecedented and unparalleled” and said she felt that his successor would continue to work for world peace.
Regenhard, whose parents emigrated from County Mayo and whose firefighter son Christian died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, said that when John F. Kennedy ran for president, his Catholicism was seen as a huge disadvantage. “Now you see all these heads of states paying homage at the pope’s funeral,” she said.
Another change since the time of John XXIII is the greater geographic and racial diversity of the college of cardinals. John Paul’s successor could conceivably come from any continent. Many Catholics, though, seem more interested in a new pope’s ideas than his country of origin.
“It’s really a non-issue where he comes from,” McCarthy said.
Said McGinley: “The most important thing is that he’s a strong leader; it doesn’t make any difference if he’s from Africa, Italy, or Ireland, for that matter.”
Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, said the leading African contender, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, is even more conservative than Pope John Paul was. “I’m not a fan of that choice,” she said. “It would be important symbolically, but what do you want — symbol or reality?”
O’Brien Steinfels added that it’s hard to predict what impact Arinze’s appointment might have on relations between Islam and Christianity. “They’re not doing very well in Nigeria,” she said.
Siobhan Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, said that the voices of Latin America’s 453 million Catholics need to be heard. “After a Polish pope, my eye would be cast in that direction — south of the border,” she said. “The church needs to spread some of the leadership. “A pope from Brazil would be ideal.”
Said O’Brien Steinfels, “The Italians are desperate to get it back,” adding that cardinals from Italy might ultimately be content to rally behind another European.
The cardinal she would like to see elected pope is an Italian, though he’s rumored to be have been in poor health and, as a 78-year-old liberal and Jesuit, must be considered a long shot.
“[Former Milan archbishop Carlo] Martini is somebody I could have cheered for,” O’Brien Steinfels said.
The Belgian Gotfried Danneels is another who might appeal to those who want reform, she said, adding: “He’s actually a very good guy. But I don’t know what his chances are.”
McGinley said, if anything, some candidates might be too liberal on paper. “I looked at some of them and thought, ‘Gee, I don’t know,’ ” he said. But, he argued that, as has been seen with the U.S. Supreme Court, someone’s mature philosophy may only become apparent after he’s been elevated to the top job.
In any case, McGinley argued, John Paul II didn’t fit neatly into a conservative mold. The AOH national president pointed to the pontiff’s anti-war stance and his support for the struggles of the poor. “His liberal side was less well publicized,” McGinley said.
McCarthy, who teaches English in a Catholic high school in New York City, said: “I’ve always believed it was possible for a person to be conservative on moral issues and politically progressive. I’m a little bit conservative myself, but it’s important to have an open mind,” adding that reform may happen. “I’m also an American and a person of the modern world,” he said.
Regenhard said that certain reforms “should be looked at.” Dennehy agreed, saying that more should be done for the victims of sexual abuse.
O’Brien Steinfels said that John Paul II was weak at upholding key ideals of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 and argued that during his reign the conservative and bureaucratic Roman Curia “has been a little out of control,” without proper management and accountability.
She said that John Paul II did not use the synod of bishops properly. “He made a hash of those,” she said. “The bishops would come to Rome, sit around and talk for a couple of weeks. Then the Curia would make a statement, which often bore little relation to what the discussions were all about.
“The Council envisioned that they would be far more important in the life of the church,” she said. “They were meant to be truly consultative bodies.”
O’Brien Steinfels argued that a change of pope would not improve the status of women within the church. “I’d be surprised if it made a difference,” she said, “but you could hope for someone who is more positive about married priests.”
Some have pinned their hopes on reform, believing that nothing less the church’s survival in the Western world is at stake. Others are more relaxed, as the conclave readies for its task. Said McCarthy: “The church takes care of itself and sustains itself. It wouldn’t be in the world unless it did.”