Who’s the talk of Rome to be the next pope?

Synods of bishops, summits of roughly 300 prelates from around the world, are a bit like the Iowa Caucuses of the Catholic Church

(L-R) Cardinal Pietro Parolin (CNS/Paul Haring), Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (CNS/Liam Burke Courtesy Press 22), Cardinal Sean O’Malley (CNS/Gregory L. Tracy, The Pilot)

The Synod of Bishops, a summit of roughly 300 prelates from around the world the popes have now summoned 28 times since it was created after Vatican II in 1965, are always a bit like the Iowa Caucuses of the Catholic Church.

It’s just about the only time, at least in the early phases of the race, that all the “candidates” to become the next pope are on display for an extended period of time, which means it tends to be a moment when Church-watchers get into the traditional parlor game of speculation about what, and who, might come next.

Francis will turn 82 in December, and it’s inevitable that people are at least pondering “what if?” scenarios.

It’s a myth to assert that one can never see the next pope coming. In the last six papal elections, a real surprise only prevailed twice — Angelo Roncalli as John XXII in 1958, and Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II in 1978. 

Over the last month, I’ve discussed this question with some three dozen people, sometimes one-on-one and sometimes in groups, from a variety of different cultural and geographic settings. What follows is a kind of statistical average of three names that seem to surface most often.

1. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Italian, 63
Parolin is pretty much everybody’s consistent “safe” pick. He’s in sync with Pope Francis, so he’d represent continuity with this papacy, but he’s also a career Vatican diplomat, making him a good bet for a more cautious and calmer version of the boss. 

2. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Austrian, 73
A grand irony is that Schönborn’s main problem as a papal candidate right now is that after spending two decades as the dauphin of Ratzinger, potentially making it difficult to attract liberal support, the Austrian scion of a family that’s produced two cardinals and 19 archbishops, bishops, priests and religious sisters so far, he might now have a hard time attracting conservatives because of his backing for Francis, especially on “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).  

Yet precisely that background might allow him to cross traditional divides, and anyway, as a genuine Dominican intellectual, many of his fellow cardinals just think he may be the brightest bulb they’ve got.

3. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, American, 74
Although O’Malley’s age might appear to be a problem, the last two popes were elected at 78 and 76, respectively, so clearly it’s not a deal-breaker. Otherwise, the American Capuchin has a lot going for him. 

Because of his background and languages, he’s not seen as excessively “American.” He’s got a reputation as a leader and reformer on the clerical sexual abuse scandals, and he also has strong appeal to popular Italian sentiment because he reminds them of Padre Pio, the celebrated Capuchin stigmatic and healer. 

Further, O’Malley is a good combination of a Francis loyalist who’s nevertheless sensitive to concerns of those a bit disaffected, which could position him to build a two-thirds vote in a conclave.

Full story at Angelus News.


  1. Lou Varini says:

    Are Cdls. Burke and Mueller viable. I have not looked up their ages, So I don’t know whether either of them would qualify as Cardinal Electors.

    If I recall correctly, cardinals over the age of 80 are intelligible to vote in a conclave.

    Clarification on this would be greatly appreciated.

    • I doubt Burke is papabile. He is seen as to divisive. Muller is unlikely because he would be the second German within 3 pontificates, because he chose retirement instead of remaining an active member of the curia and (I think) has no active position within the Church, and because he was criticized for his own handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal in his home diocese. Personally, I think the next Popel will come from the Global South. South America, Australia, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. Cardinal Tagle of Manila, Cardinal Mafi of Tonga both come to mind.

      • Lou Varini says:

        Thanks for the input Anonymous.

        On an outside chance, I recall that there are four eligible cardinals from the Eastern Catholic Churches:
        Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch Emeritus of Antioch of the Maronites;
        Antonios Naguib, Patriarch Emeritus of Alexandria of the Copt;
        Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites; and
        Louis Raphaël I Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans.

        Maybe someone from the rich Eastern Catholic traditions would be the person to lead the Universal Church.

        Just a thought, since they are just as eligible as any of the members of the College of Cardinals which is dominated by the West.

        • Interesting idea Lou, but I doubt that would ever happen. The Pope is also the Latin Rite Patriarch, so it’s hard to see how that would work, but like I said, it’s interesting. As to “eligible”, recall that any male catholic is eligible. (I know they don’t have to be a Bishop or Cardinal, they might not even need to be a priest – those sacraments would be conferred upon selection).

        • Sienna Sam says:

          Why not? Look at what theWestern -domination of the Roman Curia has done—confusion, divisiveness and fragmentation on what is Catholic teaching.

          Any one of the Eastern Catholic membets og the College of Cardinals would be preferable to the current Holy Father!

          • I don’t know anything about any of the Eastern Catholic Cardinals to be able to comment on their fitness to be, as they say, the Pope of Rome, but I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate being used to take a swipe at the Pontiff, who has, after all, done more to reconcile the Great Schism than just about anyone in history. He’s also done more to stand up for the religious and human rights of those Christians in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox territories than just about anyone – with Pope Saint John Paul II a possible tie.

      • Albert Mohler says:

        Fully agree: Burke and Mueller are not good candidates.

  2. Lou Varini says:

    Never mind my last question. I looked Cdls. Muller and Burke.

    They are both 70 years old and eligible to vote for the next 10 years.

  3. I’ll take even money for $20 it will be someone else. Even someone from outside the western world.

  4. Crdl Schönborn is openly supporting now the homosexual culture.
    I hope he doesn’t make it
    We need a strong and orthodox man to appeal as candidate.
    I pray.

    • Cardinal Shonborn is hardly supporting the homosexual culture, whatever that might mean. He’s a pretty party line kind of prelate.

  5. Linda Maria says:

    What will the Vatican do, with a new Pope, such as Schonborn– who has publicly praised and blessed same-sex unions?

  6. Cdl Tagle of Manilla. 61

  7. William Roberts says:

    Cardinal Burke, if elected Pope, would certainly bring back the importance of papal attire and vestments. He certainly knows how to dress for the sacred liturgy. Also, he undoubtedly would re-emphasize the TLM. However, he is closely associated with shady Steve Bannon so his proclamation of the”good news” would be viewed with a great deal of cynicism.

  8. Marty Martins says:

    I would like to see Cardinal Robert Sarah elevated. Cardinal Arinze would be good, too, but I think he is too old. Cardinal Burke won’t get it because Americans are never chosen for a variety of reasons and he is too orthodox for many of the heterodox cardinals. Besides being American, O’Malley shouldn’t get it because he was too close to and silent about the sexual abuse cases, IMO.

    • Take a look at his overall history with the church. When a local church needed cleaning up, he was sent in: Palm Beach, Fall River, Jamaica (?), Boston, as well as the Vatican commission on priestly abuse. He has been in the thick of it for years.

  9. We desperately need Cardinal Burke at this time !!!

  10. Burke is a classmate and close friend of Cardinal Dolan. Not a trustworthy connection.

    • Being classmates does not necessarily equate to agreement. While there may be an “old boy” network, Cdl. Burke appears to his own man.

  11. Steve Seitz says:

    I don’t think the writer has a good grasp of conclave politics. In fact, it strikes me as a pro-Francis puff-piece by someone wants to gain favor with the Pope.

    With the death of Francis, I think the Conclave will seek a simpler and more spiritual Pope to return civility and doctrinal continuity to the Church and to restore confidence in the Church’s leaders. Therefore, I’m thinking [and hoping] that the next pope will be from Africa.

  12. Cardinal Pietro Parolin would make a fine Pope!

  13. Are there any Catholics in the mix?

  14. All three Cardinals would make fine Popes, my personal preference is Cardinal O’Malley. Others I see as rounding out the top ten (in order of liklihood of being elected) are Cardinals Tagle, Turkson, Filoni, Braz de Aviz, Ouellet, Becciu and Erdo

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