When Pope Benedict XVI broke his wrist in the middle of the night last week, the world was reminded rather suddenly of his age (82), his potential frailty, and the possibility that, some time in the not too distant future, the Roman Catholic Church could be looking once again to choose a new Successor of Peter.
Thankfully, for many Catholics, the accident was pretty minor. The pope apparently fell in his bedroom during the early hours Friday morning, getting up in the dark to use the bathroom. Characteristically, he didn't make a fuss and didn't call his assistants but went straight back to bed. Only when he came down for mass in the morning did he tell anyone what had happened. His personal physician, Patrizio Polisca, ordered him to the hospital, where doctors surgically repaired a fracture in the pope's right wrist.
But Benedict is one of the oldest men to have become pontiff. And he keeps an exhausting schedule. What if something more serious were to happen to him? Who could his potential successors be? Drawing up a list is never easy, but a roster of papabili, or "popeable" candidates, might look something like this:
The son of a truck driver, Scola is the bookies' favorite. He is well regarded for his energetic preaching and theological expertise. An eminent scholar, he has striven to find ways to avoid a "clash of civilizations" by building a forum for dialogue between the West and Islam. If elected, the 67-year-old would follow three patriarchs of Venice who went on to become pope in the 20th century: Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul I.
A firm and loyal friend of the pontiff, Bagnasco, 66, has emerged as a doughty yet soft-spoken leader of the church in Italy. His meteoric rise is taken as a testament to his abilities. Benedict appointed him archbishop of Genoa in August 2006, then chose him to head the Italian bishops' conference a year later and elevated him to cardinal. He has often vigorously defended the pope in the face of controversy.
Noted for his cheerful, open, and apparently humble persona as well as his uncompromising orthodoxy, Ouellet, 64, is often regarded as the cardinal to watch for the future. A lone voice surrounded by Canada's often aggressive secularism, he has nonetheless remained one of the most staunch public defenders of the Catholic faith. A native French speaker and the author of many books, he is also a proficient linguist, at home outside the corridors of the Vatican and the intrigues of Italy.
The 71-year-old doctrinally conservative archbishop of Bologna is considered a safe pick who served as an adviser to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Pope Benedict (Cardinal Ratzinger) was in charge of it. An expert on bioethics, he founded a special section within the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C.
A member of a prominent aristocratic Austrian family that produced two cardinals in the 18th and 19th centuries, Cardinal Schoeborn, 64, was once a student of Prof. Joseph Ratzinger. He has had extensive experience defending the church in the face of radical secularism in Austria but little management experience. Another polyglot priest, he recently called for a reform of the Vatican's internal communications.
At 57, Cardinal Erdõ, the primate of Hungary, is the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. A canon lawyer, he has a string of awards and positions to his name. He is the president of Europe's Catholic bishops, an adviser to a number of Vatican departments, and author of hundreds of research papers and articles. But his inability to speak fluent English is a distinct disadvantage.
A new pope would be unlikely to tamper with the course that Benedict has taken. This pontiff has persistently returned to the fundamentals of the faith in his teachings while remaining attentive to the letter of the reforms that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, insisting there is continuity between the two. Nobody is going to want to reopen the wounds he has worked so hard to heal.
Yet some believe there could be a change of emphasis. A number of Catholics, predominantly in the West, think the church should be more welcoming of "progressive" values and will hope for a pope more open to their views. They may entertain the notion that a new pope will be more receptive to the idea that priests might marry or that women can become priests themselves. But these are dogmas which are based firmly on Scripture or tradition, and they almost certainly will not change after Benedict.
Still, not a few Catholics would like to see a Vatican more skilled at communicating its message to the faithful and also to the wider world. Controversies—such as lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying priest, the pope's 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg (which upset many Muslims), and his remarks on condoms and AIDS while on his way to Africa earlier this year—should probably have been foreseen and better handled.
At any rate, most Vatican watchers believe Benedict XVI has barely begun to enact the changes he would most like to make within the church. But given his age, it's fair to ask what would happen when his pontificate comes to an end. For the moment, though, commentators readily quote an old Roman maxim that "the next pope is not yet a cardinal" —in other words, it's just too early to say.