By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
During the early phases of planning for Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United States, some voices advised against visiting America in the middle of the 2008 election, given the inevitable risk of being drawn into partisan politics. One senior Vatican official dismissed those fears with the quip: “When is it not campaign season in the United States these days?”
Apparently, it’s pretty much always campaign season in the Vatican these days too.
That, at least, is the conclusion one might draw from an April 25 article in Le Figaro by Hervé Yannou, the Rome correspondent of the leading French newsmagazine. Sounding an alarm about papal health, Yannou claimed that Benedict appeared weary during his American swing, particularly during his Saturday morning Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Moreover, Yannou observed, Benedict skipped his regular Wednesday audience after his return from the States, and allowed a funeral Mass for Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo to be celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals. Going further back in time, Yannou also recalled that Benedict XVI did not walk the traditional Good Friday route in Rome’s Colosseum, but rather sat through most of it.
“And,” Yannou wrote ominously, “it’s no secret to anyone that the pope’s heart is fragile.”
Having made a case for declining papal vigor, Yannou suggested that it’s time to begin thinking about the post- Benedict XVI succession. Specifically, he pointed to two cardinals as occupying the pole position to become the next pope: the Italian Tarcisio Bertone, 74, currently Benedict’s top aide as the Secretary of State, and the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, 72, who in effect was the runner-up to Benedict XVI in the conclave of April 2005.
Yannou also tossed in the name of Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, 65, who is quoted in a new book-length interview in France as describing the desirability of a future pope coming from outside Europe. (In French, the book is titled De la difficulté d'évoquer Dieu dans un monde qui pense ne pas en avoir besoin: Entretiens avec Éric Valmir, or "On the difficulty of talking about God in a world that doesn't think it needs him: Conversations with Eric Valmir.")
Reaction to the Le Figaro piece in the Vatican so far has not been the traditional pique when the pope’s health is questioned, but rather amusement. After all, Benedict XVI has just completed the longest and most challenging foreign trip of his papacy, and by all accounts showed remarkable stamina. Of all the moments in which to launch an alarm about the pope’s physical condition, officials have suggested, this seems to be among the least well-chosen.
“Certainly, the pope is 81 years old,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican Press Office. “But on live television, before the eyes of the whole world, anyone can see that he’s fine and is performing all of his duties.”
Lombardi noted, for example, that it’s traditional for the pope to skip the General Audience after he returns from a long trip, and that last Wednesday’s edition was taken off the calendar more than two months ago – not, therefore, in response to any particular health concern. Lombardi also noted that today, April 27, the pope will preside over a lengthy ordination ceremony for new deacons.
Of course, unlike presidents of the United States, the pope does not have an annual physical with the results released to the public, so to some extent armchair diagnoses about his health are inevitable. The Vatican also has a history of denying and minimizing reports of papal illness; even amid the long twilight of John Paul II, it really wasn’t until the last 48 hours that Vatican spokespersons began to speak openly about the gravity of his condition.
In reality, however, those who have followed Benedict XVI closely over the first three years of his papacy generally don’t see any particular signs of decline. These days in Rome, comparisons with Pope Leo XIII are very much in the air – elected at 68, Leo reigned until he was 93, the third-longest pontificate in church history.
The paring back of Benedict’s public schedule to which Yannou refers, including the decision to sit out the Good Friday procession, seems less like a reaction to fatigue than a precautionary measure to prevent that fatigue in the first place. If Benedict continues to pace himself carefully, there’s no reason to suspect that he couldn’t continue for some time to come.
If the Le Figaro doesn’t tell us much about the actual state of Benedict’s health, however, it does illustrate an iron-clad rule of Vatican coverage: However thin the pretext may be, speculation about the next pope is always guaranteed to generate an audience.
In that sense, one could suggest that Yannou’s piece marks the informal opening of the papal primary season. With John Paul II, that season lasted the better part of 20 years, with recurrent flurries of speculation about his imminent demise followed by new bursts of papal energy and activity.
How long it may last in this case is anyone’s guess, but there’s no reason to think the cycle won’t repeat itself. Though it may be ill-timed or groundless, speculation about the essentially unknowable is simply too much fun.