It is surely premature to start talking about ‘conclave contenders’

Archbishop Dolan of New York, pictured addressing the media, is to be given a red hat (Photo: CNS)

I learnt from the Herald that on January 6 the Holy Father appointed 22 new cardinals. Not being an obsessive Vatican-watcher I confess I hadn’t heard of any of them, with the exception of the former Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. I did scroll down the list, wondering if our own Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, was among them. He wasn’t. Then I read the posts: largely negative about Nichols and showing little enthusiasm for Dolan either. I am reminded (again) to try to avoid Church politics as it is always such a depressing business. That’s politics for you.

Alongside this news I have been reading Robert Mickens’s article in the Tablet of December 31, entitled Conclave contenders. I groaned at the title alone. Of course the Holy Father is right – and it is his prerogative after all – to keep up the Sacred College of Cardinals to a healthy number; these are the men who will decide his successor when the time comes. But I emphasise when the time comes because it strikes me that the Tablet seems very eager to begin the speculation about who will succeed Pope Benedict. I seem to recall a Tablet luminary looking shocked and discomfited when the news broke on April 19, 2005 that the conclave had elected Cardinal Ratzinger. I can’t think why, unless it was that his track record as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not always pleasing to the alternative magisterium operating from London W6.

As to the article itself, I had heard of two of “the likely candidates”, as Mickens calls them: Cardinal Peter Turkson and Cardinal Schönborn OP. “A few outsiders” were also included and I recognised the names of Archbishop Nichols and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Neither of these are papabile in my view; but what do I know?

Mickens writes: “Although Pope Benedict’s general health appears to be good, he has begun to show signs of fatigue and increasing frailty. History and prudence would suggest that the cardinals of the Church should seriously start thinking about suitable candidates to succeed him… They must avoid being caught unprepared, as apparently they were at the last conclave.”

Excuse me? I thought Cardinal Ratzinger emerged very early on as the strongest candidate at that conclave – and thank God for it. The Holy Spirit also played His part. I seem to remember that the late Peter Hebblethwaite often forecast the imminent demise of the late John Paul II, and then died himself a full decade before the Pope.

Of course Pope Benedict won’t go on forever; but for now, let’s celebrate his continued intellectual vigour and physical stamina, give thanks for the inspired initiatives of his pontificate (so far), such as his wise handling of the schism in the liturgy between the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine Mass – and leave the future in God’s hands.