With a Wisp of White Smoke from the Sistine Chapel, Perhaps One of These Men Will Be Pope

When the College of Cardinals convenes next week to choose a successor to Pope Paul VI (left), these men will be uppermost in their consideration. None is yet the obvious choice, though London bookies have irreverently rated them from Cardinal Pignedoli (5-2) to Britain’s Cardinal Hume (25-1). And, for the first time, an American cardinal, John Wright, is among the papabili.

Baggio: The diplomat

“Very political-minded, very shrewd and very smooth.” Thus did one Vatican observer characterize Sebastiano Baggio, who has been a papal diplomat for nearly 30 years. Now 65, he is the head of the church’s powerful appointment-advising Congregation for the Bishops—and a front-runner to succeed Pope Paul VI. A northern Italian, Baggio involved himself closely in the local scene wherever the Pope posted him, whether developing youth groups in Latin America or rebuking undertakers as apostolic delegate to Canada (he questioned prices and the “pagan customs and trappings” of the industry). Baggio is resolutely conservative on birth control and abortion, yet heartily supports the reforms of Vatican II. To relax, he enjoys reading, classical music and small talk with people he meets on the street. “He is accessible to all,” says a colleague in Rome. “There is no red tape about getting to see him.”

Willebrands: The traveler

Perhaps the leading non-Italian contender is a tall, bespectacled Dutchman, Johannes Gerardus Maria Willebrands, 66. When he became Archbishop of Utrecht—primate of the Dutch Catholic Church—in 1975 one churchman rejoiced: “He will be cautious; he will listen. We could use a builder of bridges.” In his 18 years as a Vatican spokesman for ecumenism, he displayed a sense of both pragmatism and humor. He has traveled so often—and to such disparate locales as the Soviet Union (he was the first cardinal to do so since the Revolution), Israel and, in 1968, Resurrection City in Washington, D.C.—that he has become known as “the Flying Dutchman.”

Benelli: A ‘Berlin Wall’

Such was Giovanni Benelli’s zeal in serving Paul VI as “executive director” of the Vatican (his title was surrogate secretary of state) that he was bitterly referred to as “the Berlin Wall” by prelates who could not get past him. Benelli, the Archbishop of Florence, was “the universal hatchet man,” according to a foe, and the Pope’s preferred successor, according to allies. “Benelli is a Tuscan, and he has inherited traditional Tuscan pigheaded-ness,” says an observer who considers him an ecclesiastical Ehrlichman. At 57, Benelli is underage by Vatican reckoning (no Pope that young has been elected since 1846), but his long years of work there give him a savvy equaled by few other candidates. He has made many enemies, but not even they turn down an invitation to dinner in his Vatican apartment. As the papal envoy in Dublin, Benelli acquired two Irish nuns as housekeepers—and sent one of them to the Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Ursi: The poor’s friend

When a cholera epidemic swept Naples in 1973, Corrado Ursi, the city’s longtime archbishop, drove straight to the isolation wards. “He was utterly fearless,” said one doctor who watched Ursi administer the sacraments to the frighteningly contagious sick and dying. He is also immune to politics, and his elevation would inspire the Vatican administration to be more responsive.

The son of a baker, Ursi, 70, has made the poor people of southern Italy his special mission—and waste his special bane. Upon his installation as archbishop, he donated the gifts he got to pay the debts of his parishioners. When the city offered him the usual Cadillac and police escort, Ursi turned them down. Shy, speaking only Italian, he shuns the striking robes of a cardinal, preferring to wear a plain black cassock as he walks through the city.

Hume: The thinker

The son of a knighted, non-Catholic heart specialist in London, George Basil Hume joined the Benedictines at 18, coached the rugby team of the abbey school and seemed content to stay in the cloister for the rest of his life. But his fellow churchmen had other plans. At 40 he was elected abbot and at 52 appointed Archbishop of Westminster. Then, just three months later, he was made cardinal—the first monk so elevated in centuries. The news “shattered and rather distressed me,” he said. But the contemplative ecumenist proved himself a skilled administrator of his rebellious archdiocese. Inviting comparison to Pope John XXIII, Hume is known for his spirituality and for speaking his mind on the most sensitive issues. On birth control, for example, he says: “One has to be endlessly understanding and respect people’s consciences.”

Pignedoli: The Kissinger

What makes Sergio Pignedoli seem somehow undignified to some of the church’s elder statesmen has also established him as the favorite of not only the oddsmakers but the people. He likes to walk the mile or so from his Vatican apartment through Rome to his office, stopping along the Tiber River to chat with tourists. The 68-year-old cardinal speaks 11 languages fluently, can get along in half a dozen more and has traveled to so many countries (102) as a Vatican emissary he has been called the Pope’s Kissinger. He still wears the cross given him by the sailors he served as chaplain in World War II and is stigmatized by a major gaffe. He unwittingly agreed at a conference in Tripoli that Jerusalem should be returned to Arab control and Islam was equal to Christianity.

Bertoli: The conservative

“If countries can’t get God on their side,” a Vatican foreign policy observer once said, “they would like to have the Pope.” For most of the past 39 years, Paolo Bertoli, now 70, was the Pope’s troubleshooter, dispatched to such volatile spots as Belgrade, Haiti and Latin America. Even though he left the papal diplomatic corps (to head the Vatican committee that investigates candidates for sainthood), Bertoli was sent to Lebanon in 1975 by Paul VI to try to help work out a peace settlement. Bertoli’s ambassadorial instincts don’t keep him from speaking his conservative mind: He resigned from the saints panel in 1973, after reportedly criticizing the number of canonizations proposed for the 1975 Holy Year. A connoisseur of art and music, Bertoli is said to have perhaps the best stereo system in the College of Cardinals.

An ailing Bostonian is America’s highest ranked Vatican official

In what seems an ironic twist, the leading American candidate for the papal office, John Cardinal Wright, 69, will be unable to go to Rome to participate in the voting. Cardinal Wright, the highest-ranking American in the Vatican hierarchy, is hospitalized in his native Boston, recovering from corrective surgery for a neuromuscular leg ailment that has partially crippled him for years. He is also awaiting a cataract operation.

Cardinal Wright’s agile intellect and administrative skills have long been recognized within the Holy See. A member of more curial offices than any other cardinal, he has served since 1969 as Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, supervising the activities and welfare of more than 250,000 Catholic priests all over the world. Witty and accessible, Wright has come to symbolize a Yankee directness in his dealings. At the same time, he is an acknowledged master of the nuances of Vatican politics.

Because the church in the U.S. is considered “too young” by many cardinals, the odds against Wright’s elevation are long. Yet few could challenge his qualifications. John Joseph Wright was noticed even as a student at Boston Latin and later at Boston College, where he helped pay his tuition by working in the city room of the Post. After St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, he was sent to Rome to complete his studies, ordained in 1935 and awarded his doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Back home again, he served as secretary to the late gray eminence of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, and at 40 was installed as the first bishop of the newly created diocese of Worcester. (According to one story, the irascible Cushing arranged the promotion to get Wright “out of my hair.”) After becoming the bishop of Pittsburgh in 1959 he gained a wide reputation as an opponent of the war in Vietnam (“a morally dubious mess”) and a battler for racial equality. “All persons are members of the single human race,” he thundered. In 1969 Wright was named organized labor’s “Man of the Year” in Pittsburgh.

For all his secular liberalism, Wright remains a theological conservative. Among other things, he steadfastly supports the papal ban on artificial methods of birth control. Still, the cardinal prefers to carry his ecclesiastical weight modestly (often only a patch of scarlet on his collar indicates his station). He lives in Rome with his priestly secretary, Father Donald Wuerl, attended by two Pittsburgh nuns. Wright is a student of the classics and an acclaimed authority on Joan of Arc. He has never lost his Boston roots, either in his accent or in his appetite for that city’s most famous dish. Every Saturday in the Eternal City he sits down to a plate of Boston baked beans.

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