SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

02/18/2013 05:05 PM

Zero Hour at the Vatican

A Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

With Pope Benedict XVI's resignation drawing closer, the struggle for power in the Vatican has gotten underway in earnest. The church badly needs to reform itself, but with Ratzinger lurking in the shadows, will it be able to? By SPIEGEL Staff

Naked and goaded viciously by hornets and wasps, his blood sucked by loathsome worms. Such was the fate of a pope in Dante's "Divine Comedy" who "by his cowardice made the great refusal."

Benedict XVI, in short, knew what could happen to one who rebelled against a centuries-old tradition in a church in which suffering is far from foreign. But he also knew that it wasn't just a matter of his own suffering -- it was a matter of the exhaustion, weakness and sickness of the church at large.

The pope from Bavaria has given up. Nevertheless, when he announced his resignation last Monday, hastily and almost casually mumbling the words as if he were saying a rosary, as if he were returning the keys to a rental car rather than the keys to St. Peter, there was still a sense of how deeply his move has shaken the Catholic empire.

Archbishop of Berlin Rainer Maria Woelki calls it a "demystification of the papal office." Already, he says, the pope's resignation has changed the church.

So was it an act of liberation? A handful of bishops have, cautiously, made their voices heard. Gebhard Fürst, the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, called for reforms to promote the advancement of women. Although he didn't demand that women be allowed to become priests, Fürst did suggest that more women assume leadership positions in the church.

German bishops will convene for their spring meeting in the southwestern city of Trier this week. Conflicting groups are already taking shape within the German church, with fundamentalists battling reformers, and with everyone anxiously determined to preserve or expand his vested rights under a new pontiff.

And the desire for change is palpable. "A pope can be a theologian, a minister or a general," says a prominent German cardinal, and he makes it clear that he has seen enough of philosopher-popes for now. "A general is needed to lead the universal church."

Silent Battle

A shift is taking place in the otherwise immovable Catholic Church. A global struggle has begun over the prerogative of interpretation, opportunities, legacy and positions -- a silent battle for Rome.

The ultimate effects of the pope's resignation are thus far impossible to predict. But it is clear that previous certainties will now be up for debate -- certainties that were once just as firm as the understanding that the position of pope was for life.

In the modern age, a pope has never resigned from the office, one that some believe is the most important on earth. There hasn't been an ex-pontiff since the last years of the Schism, after Gregory XII and the Avignon pope agreed to resign to reunite the church. That was the last time that an ex-pope spent the rest of his days strolling around the Vatican gardens as nothing but a simple brother. Never before has the decision of a single pope presented such a challenge to the Catholic Church as this one. Zero hour has begun at the Vatican. The pope's resignation was certainly "great" within Dante's meaning. But it was not made through cowardice. On the contrary, it was probably the most courageous step in a long-drifting papacy marred by scandals and misunderstandings.

With his revolt against tradition and the church machinery, Benedict XVI may have brought more change to the church than he did in the seven years and 10 months of his papal reign.

Benedict has repeatedly raged against a "dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." And this is the man who is now weakening the office of pope, making it dependent on human deficits and efficiency?

If, as Benedict implied in his statement of resignation, the office is too difficult for one man in the modern world, power must then be ceded to Catholic bishops and to world regions. If the Petrine office can be vacated like a seat in parliament, then it's time to put an end to the church's rigid stance on other questions of doctrine. Why exactly should spouses remain together until death if the pope can simply resign from his post?

More Dirt

And if Benedict now assumes the right of resignation, shouldn't every future pope expect to face demands for his resignation, not unlike a politician, when he becomes infirm or is deficient in the discharge of his office?

It's no surprise that some at the Vatican have a bad feeling about the questions that will face Rome in the coming weeks. The pope's decision to elevate his person above his position presents a challenge to the entire Vatican system. Last week, a prelate suggested shunting the ex-pope to a monastery in Germany, in other words, as far away from Rome as possible.

Pope Benedict had hoped to bring the listing ship of the Catholic Church back onto an even keel with clear directives, even if that meant a shrinking crew. He sought to counteract the church's general dissolution by focusing on core issues. He had hoped to revive faith with reason or, to use the Greek term, logos.

Instead, more and more dirt came to light, and Benedict was confronted with a growing lack of understanding. After an endless series of scandals, he must have realized that the office was too much for him.

"It was," the Italian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Dario Fo said on Thursday, "the attrition in the curia, Vatileaks and all the sharks who surrounded the pope, spied on and betrayed him. Age certainly isn't the only thing that burdens him."

On Ash Wednesday, when everything was almost over, Benedict XVI is sitting, hunched over, in St. Peter's Basilica, dressed entirely in purple, the liturgical color of atonement. He seems tiny under the bronze canopy by Bernini. Gregorian chants mingle with calls from the nave. "Viva il Papa," say the faithful, as they stand up and applaud for several minutes. They form a cordon through which he is rolled toward the exit in the wheeled platform he uses because of knee pain. He seems calm and tired, but also relieved. He apologizes for his mistakes. He can do that now, because he has nothing left to lose. In stepping down from his post, the pope seems strong, almost modern. Benedict has also lightened the load for his successors. Now, future popes will not have to face being dragged out of his Vatican office on a stretcher, like someone dying in a hospice.

There is something rebellious about Benedict's action. If it is God who calls someone to the throne, abandoning the post voluntarily can be seen acting against God's will.

A Series of Last Words

Pope Paul VI once compared his job to fatherhood -- something that was impossible to give up. "One does not step down from the cross," John Paul II reportedly said. The traditional view is that the body of the pope is not his alone. As with an absolute monarch, the office and the body are inseparable.

There were signs, but few interpreted them as such. During a visit to the Italian region of Abruzzo, why did Benedict lay the pallium, the papal woolen cloak, in front of the altar containing the relics of St. Celestine? Celestine was the only one of his predecessors who had voluntarily resigned, an act for which Dante had apparently banished him to hell. Did Benedict see the hermit pope as a kindred spirit?

But no one was paying attention, just as no one had paid attention to the pope in light of the commotion surrounding the church. Benedict spoke quietly and softly, and yet his words were chosen as carefully as if they were to be set in stone. For those who listened, his message was clear: It was a series of last words.

This was especially evident in the way he addressed German Catholics. On his visit to Germany, he warned of the need to take greater care of God's creation, one of several forays into ecology. In Freiburg, he advocated "de-secularization" and called upon Catholics not to adhere to structures. But there was no response to his efforts. The German episcopate also ignored the "Year of Faith" he proclaimed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

Tired and worn down, he completed his final tasks. He made his longtime confidant and loyal friend Georg Gänswein an archbishop, and he ensured that a conservative dogmatist, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the Bavarian city of Regensburg, would assume leadership of the Vatican's doctrinal office.

At the very beginning of his term in office, Benedict spoke of the "yoke of Christ" that he was now assuming, and of the willingness to suffer. But even then, in his inaugural mass, he said ominously: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."

The Power of the Pope Emeritus

Now, it seems necessary to speculate whether it wasn't perhaps a few wolves in sheep's clothing that made life difficult for Benedict. He was all too familiar with the machinations of the members of the curia. But only Benedict himself can judge how greatly he despised this reality and how alien it must have been to him.

The groups are beginning to coalesce. Time is short until next month's papal conclave, but the fronts are hard-fought. Reformers (a few) face off against opponents of reform (more than a few), curial cardinals against those arriving in Rome from around the world, incorrigible Europeans against fresh non-Europeans, conservative Africans against open-minded South Americans. Four rounds of voting in 26 hours, as was the case in the Ratzinger election, are hardly likely to suffice this time.

"God has already decided," says Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, as if to console himself. Nevertheless, the princes of the church are positioning themselves to make that decision known to the general public, as well as to push it through against deaf and undiscerning colleagues.

Benedict's mumbled announcement of his resignation was the starting gun for preparations ahead of the pre-conclave. It is a time when cardinals come together -- purely coincidentally, of course, for reasons having nothing to do with Benedict's resignation. They converse quietly in small seafood restaurants outside the Vatican, they pray -- and they consider coalitions and subversions.

This was already evident in Rome on Ash Wednesday, two days after Benedict's announcement. While the line of pilgrims circled once around St. Peter's Square and Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone quickly reviewed his farewell speech, a book was being presented in a brightly lit bookstore near Rome's Termini train station, one in which facts and fiction quickly become intertwined.

The book is about the "bloody war of the cardinals before the conclave," about the Vatican bank IOR, the Opus Dei society, and a secret dossier on sexual abuse, and it describes how two favorites for the papacy eliminate each other and two others die. There is a new pope in the end -- a Chinese pope.

A Frenzy of Interpretation

It's only a novel, of course, but "Le mani sul Vaticano" is certainly inspired by the realities that exist within the curia. For several years, author Carlo Marroni has been one of the most influential Vaticanisti, the correspondents at the Vatican, and the diplomatic correspondent for the business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. His book now reads like something of a forecast of the conclave.

Vatican correspondents agree that there will be a battle for control. The focus is already on holding on to power, the threat that heads will roll and on the web of relationships within the curia after Ratzinger's departure.

Only a day after Benedict's announcement, two former enemies are appeared together in public, seemingly on good terms, with newspapers launching into a frenzy of interpretation. It was Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone, the man who wields the most power at the Vatican after the pope, and Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Bertone has been sharply criticized for his dubious role in the Vatileaks affair, while Bagnasco was his subtle adversary. Both men are "papabili," or possible successors to Benedict.

The man whose ascension both men are trying to prevent, according to rumors spread by Italian newspapers, is Angelo Scola, the 72-year-old archbishop of Milan. Scola, a student of Ratzinger, is the favored candidate of the fundamentalist group within the curia, and is closely aligned with the conservative lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, which in turn is associated with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The conservative Scola is currently considered the Italian frontrunner for the papal election.

The battle between Secretary of State Bertone and his predecessor, Angelo Sodano, is also heating up. Sodano holds Bertone responsible for "depravity" in the "poorly run Vatican state," says Marco Ansaldo of the Italian daily La Repubblica. According to Ansaldo, both men will gain more power after Benedict's resignation, and they will also come into conflict with each other. Sodano will head the conclave, and has begun mobilizing his supporters. Bertano, who, as "Camerlengo", manages the property and revenues of the Holy See, is doing the same thing.

There is a saying in secular Rome: "morto un papa se ne fa un altro", or "if a pope dies, one simply makes another one." But it isn't that easy this time. The pope is still alive and the curia is divided, which makes everything so difficult to predict.

Influencing the Vote?

Joseph Ratzinger, Bishop of Rome emeritus, will not be present at the conclave. He is five years too old for that. For days, papal spokesman Federico Lombardi has denied that the soon-to-be-ex-pope could nevertheless influence the conclave's decision, saying that Benedict is too modest. But no one believes Lombardi.

Every word Benedict will utter in the coming days will be carefully analyzed and possibly even interpreted as a message to the conclave. This was already evident at the Ash Wednesday mass, at which Benedict spoke of "religious hypocrisy," of "individuals and rivalries" and of "sins against the unity of the church and divisions in the body of the church." All of this is unambiguous criticism, a settling of accounts, as well as an allusion to the conclave and a preview of what could come in the next few weeks.

Benedict is giving up power and, at the same time, is accusing his underlings of being obsessed with power, and of clinging to power and of thus being unable to follow their hearts, as he has done. A comparably explosive constellation hasn't been seen at the Vatican in a long time.

Power brokers and lobbyists are already nervously testing the waters to determine what snares could entrap the next pope. Most of all, what will it mean for him if his predecessor isn't already in his tomb, but is still in full command of his faculties and residing only a few steps away from the Apostolic Palace?

Benedict has been careful to point out that he intends to "hide from the world." Nevertheless, he will be a source of conflict for as long as he lives. How will the cardinals behave when a new pope makes mistakes, when he spoils his relationship with key factions in the curia or when he launches reforms blocked by his predecessor? Benedict himself won't even have to comment, as long as real or supposed confidants whisper anything about how the old man feels about the change of course -- and his successor's position will already be weakened.

Tensions are already looming. Benedict's closest confidant, Gänswein, will perhaps be serving two masters in the future. The 56-year-old curial archbishop will "remain prefect of the papal household and will also be secretary to Benedict," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

'A Shadow Pope'

As a result, Gänswein is likely to become one of the most influential bishops in the Roman court. At the same time, he will live near Benedict's new residence in the monastery opposite St. Peter's Basilica, where they will be able to receive visitors together and discuss the condition of the church. Gänswein will also play an important role as prefect of the papal household.

"Benedict threatens to become a shadow pope," says Swiss theologian Hans Küng. One cannot simply stop being pope, says Benedict biographer Andreas Englisch. "In the worst case, a part of the church would split off, perhaps because Ratzinger believed that his successor was doing great harm to the church."

Vatican expert John L. Allen, on the other hand, believes the radicalism of Benedict's gesture could encourage the cardinals to "think outside the box and assume the risk of taking a new step." The signal, murmured in Latin on Monday, couldn't have been clearer: It can't go on like this.

In other words, it is quite possible that the conclave will bring about a change in direction, even though the current pope appointed 67 of the 117-member electorate. Perhaps it will mean that a non-European will be elected for the first time, or someone who is not as fixated on the supposed cultural decay as Benedict. Or perhaps it will lead to a McKinsey pope, a man equipped with sufficient managerial qualities to bring the wind of change into the administration of the Catholic empire.

The shadow of the "good" Pope John XXIII will also hang over the conclave -- as a hope for some and a warning for others. He was a surprise pope, largely unknown, who suddenly had the courage to open up the church. With the reform council of 1962 to 1965, John XXIII led his church into the 20th century.

A new John would have to do the same for the 21st century. He would have to transform the globalized church from an empire into a commonwealth, in which regional differences are possible and not every theologian whose views are deemed objectionable could be silenced by a papal pronouncement from Rome.

The Need for a New Beginning

Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, the former advisor to the German Bishops' Conference, deplores the pope's need for harmony. "Being Catholic also means unity in diversity. Bishops and the pope must come to terms with this tense relationship. The universal church now needs a pope who is willing to relinquish more of his power." There is no alternative, says Mitschke-Collande, in light of globalization, the diversity of regions and the differences in the nature of Catholics worldwide. He believes that the assumption that only one monolithic church is a strong church is fundamentally incorrect. "Using this approach, no corporation today would be able to market its products worldwide anymore," says Mitschke-Collande, who made his career as a consultant at McKinsey.

On the other hand Ratzinger, a former council theologian, tried to counteract the centrifugal currents. He was a pope of the Restoration, and many priests, and members of their congregations even more so, hope that those days are now gone.

It was not a happy pontificate for Benedict XVI, but rather one of suffering. The world witnessed a shy person who regards the present with deep pessimism and, no matter how hard he tried, was unable to hide his feelings.

Last year, Benedict repeatedly experienced how every step forward was weighed down by the shadows of the past, including charges of abuse and betrayal. Furthermore, his pronouncements were often thwarted, especially in his native Germany. Indeed, church attendance in his homeland has declined to 12 percent of the population and elementary religious beliefs -- that of the creed and the belief in the resurrection and the Holy Trinity -- are now held by only a minority of the population.

If he already felt worn out from these battles over faith, the years in which butler Paolo Gabriele betrayed his trust must have finally pulled the rug out from under his feet. When Secretary Gänswein assumed all of the blame and offered to resign, the Holy Father wanted nothing of it. With a sigh, he said: "But we must trust each other up here. It doesn't work without trust."

Benedict's Parting Gift

But the treachery had found its way into his own chambers. According to a report last week by the Milan newsmagazine Panorama, Dec. 17, the day on which three cardinals handed the pope the secret report describing the background of Vatileaks, complete with witness statements, was apparently the moment he decided to resign. Before that, Benedict had "learned of conditions in the curia that he would never have thought possible."

He was, after all, a teaching pope and not a governing pope. Benedict sought to use the word to exert influence. His speeches in Regensburg and in Paris, and before the parliaments in Berlin and London, were invitations to the non-Catholic world to join Catholics in thinking about the ethical basis of the political, and to consider other things, too, like the law of nature and an expanded concept of reason.

"The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program," the pope said in his Regensburg lecture. And quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, he added: "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God."

With his decision to resign, Benedict has given his church a final gift: the chance for a new beginning. And that is exactly what Catholics in his native Germany long for. Benedict's resignation comes at a time when the standing of the Catholic Church in Germany has arrived at a new low.

Church doctrine and social reality have drifted so far apart in many areas that even devout Catholics believe the time has come for change. Karl-Josef Kuschel, a religious scholar in the southwestern German city of Tübingen, says that the church is now confronted with "fundamental mistrust."

This cannot be blamed entirely on the outgoing pope, and yet Benedict didn't manage to stop the trend, at least not in northern countries. In 2010, the number of people leaving the church in Germany, more than 180,000, was for the first time substantially greater than the number of baptisms. Today more than a third of Germans are members of no Christian church at all. The number of baptisms, weddings and even church funerals is dropping rapidly. There is also a colossal shortage of priests.

Atmosphere of Fear and Suspicion

In total, the church lost about 3.8 million Catholics in Germany between 1990 and 2011, a number almost twice the size of the Archdiocese of Cologne. And the trend has shown no signs of reversal.

As a result, the church is losing importance in Germany. Its influence over legislation, important national debates or on culture is limited today. "The church is in a crisis of faith, trust, authority, leadership and communication," Mitschke-Collande, an active Catholic, writes in an analysis.

And then there are the devastating results of a recent study by the Sinus Institute, based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, on the growing isolation of the Catholic Church in most social environments. The study makes it very clear that it isn't just external critics, so-called enemies of the church, but also the core and even the substance of loyal Catholics in the church that no longer has any confidence in the pope and the bishops.

The crisis has reached the center of the church, and the bishops are at a turning point. Business as usual isn't an option, and yet the bishops are only thwarting one another. "No one wants to come out from cover first," says a bishop's aide. "No one dares to go it alone, because everyone fears that the others will attack him and that, in the end, there will only be trouble with Rome."

This culture of making statements on the quiet is reminiscent of the final stage in East Germany, when an atmosphere of fear and suspicion had taken hold. But how can a church be attractive when it is internally divided, disunited and demoralized? Pope Benedict XVI and his most loyal representatives in Germany, be it in Cologne, Limburg or Regensburg, have allowed this disunity to develop, or they have even promoted it.

Referring to this issue, one cardinal's spokesman says: "You have to be able to say something without being immediately assailed, and without denunciation in Rome or on the Internet. If this climate of mutual suspicion isn't put to an end now, we will fail in our efforts to launch a new beginning. The church must be able to tolerate more criticism, more diversity and more freedom without its ranks." The role of the bishops, he adds, will be more important than that of the pope in the future, and the local mood will be crucial to people, be it in Germany, Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Easter Deadline

Catholic youth groups are calling on their bishops to address current debates from the center of the church, and not to leave the field to ultraconservative Catholics. This, they say, also includes a discussion on what "can be left up to the conscience of the individual," when it comes to sexual morality. Helmut Schüller, the co-founder of a pastors' initiative, says that the Vatican can no longer be the center of a universal church that "emanates fear and terror, where people are harassed, removed from office and denied the right to teach."

For now, such critique has been but a murmur. But it is rapidly getting louder.

Under the current papal rules, the secret election of the 266th pope, the conclave, must begin between 15 and 20 days after Benedict's resignation. As such, in mid-March, 117 cardinals will be locked in seclusion "cum clave" in the Sistine Chapel. There, they will pray, carry their folded ballots to the altar, count them, burn them and begin all over again.

Days -- in the past, even weeks and months -- can pass before a two-thirds majority materializes. But this time the electorate won't have much time. The new pope is expected to complete the traditional foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday, preside over the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday and, on Easter Sunday, pronounce the Urbi et orbi from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the blessing for the city of Rome and the rest of the world.

Will the succession be decided among the Europeans, or will they succeed in bridging the gap with the non-European churches? Will the pope remain a man of the Restoration, as Ratzinger was, or will he be a reformer, like Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn or Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, the notoriously progressive president of the Pontifical Council for Culture?

Can one line even exist in the stricken Catholic Church -- a single line uniting the 30 cardinals of the curia and the much larger number of cardinals traveling to Rome from all over the world?

The church faces massive and fundamental issues: connecting to the modern age and decisions on key questions such as celibacy, the ordination of women, ecumenism and large numbers of faithful leaving the church in some regions.

Looking for a Miracle

It needs a contemporary crisis manager, someone who can master the conflicts within the church with a strong hand, and can weather or, better yet, avoid scandals. He should be just as intellectually gifted as Ratzinger, as spiritually steadfast as Jesus Christ, as charismatic as Karol Wojtyla and, of course, just as young. Wojtyla was 58 when he was elected. In a nutshell, the church is seeking a mediator, a cleanup man and a tough man, and yet someone is nevertheless tender in his faith.

What it's seeking is a miracle.

The Vaticanisti agree that, given this job description, none of the six German cardinals (Paul Josef Cordes, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, Reinhard Marx, Joachim Meisner, Rainer Maria Woelki) is a possibility. If the new pope is to be a European, he will most likely be an Italian.

After almost 35 years of foreign rule, first by a Pole and then by a German, an Italian pontiff would certainly be desirable. The problem is that the Italians in the curia are divided, into both territorial groups and theological factions. Their advantage, on the other hand, is that they would not be troubled by conditions in the curia. They are accustomed to confusion, intrigues, vanities and a meticulously practiced lack of interest in reform. It's the only reality they know, both in the curia and in politics.

A few days before Benedict vacates the Apostolic See on Feb. 28, a new parliament will be elected in secular Rome. The news of Benedict's resignation is already affecting the election campaign today. It has become calmer and more objective -- for one simple reason: Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who depends so greatly on media attention, is getting much less exposure now that all eyes are on the Vatican. According to rumors in the halls of parliament, Berlusconi is livid as a result while Mario Monti and the leftists are overjoyed.

The key question is how the global composition of the College of Cardinals will affect the papal election. The conclave is still just as colorful as it was before Benedict's election. It will include cardinals from 50 countries, 61 Europeans, of which six will be German and 28 Italian, 11 cardinals from the United States, five Indians, 19 Latin Americans, 11 from both Africa and Asia, and one from Australia.

Mass Masses

The Latin Americans, among others, have great expectations. They hope to see an end to the "Eurocentric Vatican," writes respected columnist Elio Gaspari. He believes that the "theologian and bureaucrat" Benedict will now be followed by a "shepherd" from the Third World. "He would combine the useful with the pleasant."

The members of the curia are worried about the latest developments in Latin America, where there is a shortage of tens of thousands of priests, and where many rural churches are abandoned. Millions are defecting to the Protestant Pentecostal churches. The Protestant pastors are true entertainers, their services are shows for tens of thousands of people, they sing and dance, and many sell CDs by the millions.

The Catholic Church hasn't found an effective response yet, though it has made some rather helpless attempts. Some Catholic priests, known as pop padres, are now holding their services in giant venues, and their masses have come to resemble pop concerts. Still, this hasn't stopped the growth of the Protestant churches.

Africa too is hoping for a change of course. In 2010, 15.5 percent, or about 180 million of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, were Africans. Thanks to demographic changes, their continent, along with Asia, is among the major growth regions in the global faith market. Tens of thousands of church institutions built by missionaries in the last 150 years, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages and AIDS wards, feel like islands of hope on a continent plagued by mass poverty. The church wields considerable political influence in countries that are unable to perform their social duties. The Catholic Church is considered the only functioning national institution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.

But the popularity of Pentecostal churches and Protestant sects is also on the rise. Both proclaim a simple feel-good gospel, a much more appealing message to many of the poor than the doctrines of the Catholics, Anglicans and mainstream Protestants. An African pope could be more adept at meeting this challenge; at least many Africans think so.

The churches in Africa are still filled on Sundays. White missionaries rave about the deep religiosity and strong faith of the Africans, and about their colorful liturgy and experience of spirituality. Some believe that Africa exudes the rejuvenating force that could revive the leaderless official church of the north. The church does a lot of good in Africa, and yet it is also controversial. Catholic preachers are among those in Uganda who are fomenting hatred of gays in Uganda. And on the subject of AIDS, most Catholic dignitaries in Africa adhere to the recommendations of old men from the Vatican, demonizing the use of condoms. When it comes to birth control, same-sex marriage, homosexuality or assisted suicide, they are often even more dogmatic than the Vatican.

'Obama of the Vatican'

"For God's sake, let's hope it's not an African!" Stefan Hippler, a foreign priest in South Africa, said in April 2005 before the white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel marking the beginning of Benedict's papacy. The ultra-conservative Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria, now 80, was among the favorites at the time.

This time around, though, Hippler would consider 64-year-old Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson a good choice. The Ghanaian, already dubbed the "Obama of the Vatican," is multilingual and has been a member of the Roman curia for more than three years. He is also ranked highly on gambling sites. Turkson is relatively young and open-minded on social issues. He represents positions of Liberation Theology and advocates a cautious correction of course on the issue of condoms.

A 63-year-old Brazilian with ancestors from the German state of Saarland, Odilo Pedro Scherer, is also on the list of likely possibles, as is French-Canadian Marc Ouellet, a close friend of Ratzinger who could garner the votes of North and South Americans, thereby bridging the old and new worlds.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, 63, a representative of the wealthy US church, is also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.

And then there is another candidate, the "Wojtyla from the Far East, Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. He is said to possess the brain of a theologian and the heart of a shepherd, as well as being more charismatic than most in the College of Cardinals. But at 55, he is also the second youngest in the College of Cardinals, practically a baby by Vatican standards.

Taking Advantage of Zero Hour

In short, the result of the conclave is as difficult to forecast as it was in 1978 when, after several rounds of voting, a largely unknown Pole stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. The next pope could be a black man, an African. He could be a charismatic South American or an Italian apparatchik or a reformist European. He could be someone who continues Ratzinger's course or someone who takes advantage of zero hour.

Only one thing is certain: Next Thursday, at about 5 p.m., a white Sikorsky Sea King helicopter will lift off from the landing pad in Vatican City into the skies above Rome. The pope will be on board and sitting next to him, in all likelihood, will be his private secretary, Georg Gänswein. Their destination is less than 25 kilometers (16 miles) away: Castel Gandolfo, the beloved papal summer residence, with its beautiful view of bottle-green Lake Albano.

Three hours later, at precisely 8 p.m., the pope will no longer be a pope. His chair will then be "vacante," as the sede vacante beings. There will be a simple dinner at Castel Gandolfo. The new pope will assume his office by Easter. Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, will perform his duties until then.

Joseph Ratzinger will move out of the papal palace and into his new home in the former Convent of Mater Ecclesiae, a simple, ochre-colored, 450-square-meter (4,840-square-foot) building in the Vatican gardens, with 12 rooms, as small and sparse as prayer booths. Until November, the building was occupied by 11 nuns with the Salesian Sisters, who harvested lemons and planted tomatoes, zucchini and the whitish-yellow "John Paul II" rose. Now the building is hastily being renovated, as construction debris is carried out and the library enlarged to accommodate Benedict's books -- and the two Georgs, Gänswein and Benedict's 89-year-old brother. Both men will likely visit the ex-pope's new home for a session of ora et labora.

Georg Ratzinger remembers a day, a few months ago, when they were sitting together in the room that the pope had set up for his older brother in Rome. They talked about all kinds of things. Then Benedict said that he intended to resign from office. According to his brother, he made the announcement very matter-of-factly and unemotionally, and seemed neither relieved nor sad.

"I had a few more questions relating to the implementation, but that too was discussed matter-of-factly, and the issue was settled. It didn't play a major role in our conversation. We have a great deal to discuss when we see each other, and that was only one issue," says Georg Ratzinger.

Benedict XVI, now Joseph Ratzinger once again, will remain at the Vatican, in the midst of his church but no longer at its center. He will pray and write and talk and have discussions with the two Georgs.

It's quite conceivable that he will be happy. It will be a return home, after seven years and 10 months in an office and world that were not his own.

BY FIONA EHLERS, JENS GLÜSING, BARTOLOMÄUS GRILL, FRANK HORNIG, MATTHIAS MATUSSEK, CONNY NEUMANN, ALEXANDER SMOLTCZYK and PETER WENSIERSKI

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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