(RNS) — By the end of the day on Sept. 30, Pope Francis will have crossed an important threshold: He will have appointed enough cardinals to have created a supermajority at the next conclave, the gathering of cardinals that will select his successor.
Taken at face value, Francis’ statistical watershed suggests he has ensured that the next pope will share his style and vision. But the reality is far more complex. History shows that conclaves exercise a logic of their own that owes little to the pope who devised them.
After all, Francis, who is seen as a liberal reformer, was elected by a conclave for the most part assembled by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, both staunch conservatives.
“The next pope won’t necessarily share his views with Francis 100%,” said Massimo Borghesi, a philosopher at the University of Perugia and author of “The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey,” in a recent interview. The next pope is likely to respect Francis’ bent for dialogue and “a missionary approach,” Borghesi said, but the conclave is likely to consider other qualities as important, and many factors will decide who is chosen.
Speculation about the next pope is still relatively quiet: Francis remains mentally present as ever, and though he shows signs of his age, 86, he isn’t evidently ill. But papal succession is a constant conversation at the Vatican, no matter the health of the current pope, and even Francis is in on it. After a tiring visit to Mongolia in early September, the pontiff quipped that if he wouldn’t return to the Central Asian country himself, then “surely John XXIV will go.” (The previous pope named John was the 23rd.)
But if papal prognosticators are always busy, their job has become even harder under Francis. The reforms he has made, particularly his determination to clean up the Vatican’s historically corrupted finances, has reduced the influence of anyone tainted by scandal.
As secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, 68, is the highest-ranking prelate at the Vatican after Francis, and, combining Francis’ vision with an Italian flair and diplomatic savoir faire, he was considered an obvious candidate for pope. But after his department got tangled in a failed real estate deal, Francis stripped the secretariat of its financial assets, and Parolin now looks diminished. Formerly the third highest ranking Vatican prelate, Cardinal Antonio Becciu is on trial for fraud in the real estate case and he has alleged that the fallout cost him his shot at the papacy.
Others have risen and fallen in Francis’ bureaucratic shuffles. Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, 74, was removed from his influential position as prefect of Integral Human Development in favor of Cardinal Michal Czerny. Cardinal Angelo De Donatis received the red hat from Francis and was named Vicar of Rome, only to be marginalized. A papal favorite for his work leading the vibrant church in the Philippines, Cardinal Luis Tagle lost his job running the global charity network Caritas Internationalis.
Given the excitement that Francis has generated in and outside the church, the conclave may well draw the next pope from among Francis’ closest collaborators, such as Cardinals Matteo Zuppi, Mario Grech or Cardinal Konrad Krajewski.
At 59, Krajewski, the papal almoner, has been responsible for some of Francis’ most headline-grabbing charitable acts, including helping bring transgender sex workers to the Vatican at the height of the pandemic. He has also made news of his own, jumping into the Roman sewers to restore electricity to an apartment inhabited by homeless people and blessing mass graves in Ukraine last year, leaving an impression that will be difficult to ignore at the next conclave.
Zuppi, 67, the head of the Italian bishops’ conference, has also come to prominence in the pope’s energetic diplomatic efforts. Francis tapped him to lead his delicate peace mission to put an end to the conflict in Ukraine, and he was the first cardinal to meet with Chinese authorities in Beijing. He can boast the support of the influential lay movement of Sant’Egidio, which has become a powerful element of the Vatican’s informal diplomacy.
Grech, who heads the Vatican’s synod office, oversees an effort Francis has infused with new energy, turning tired meetings of bishops summoned to strengthen Vatican pronouncements into dynamic encounters of Catholic clergy and lay people discussing the future of the church.