When white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signals a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, probably next month, chances are the new man won't be from the United States.
“I highly doubt an American,'' said Sister Aline Paris, associate professor of theology at Omaha's College of St. Mary.
Following Monday's resignation of the Roman Catholic Church leader, speculation began over who will be picked to follow him. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a conservative like the current pope, is among those who have been mentioned as a possible successor.
Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, announced that he will step down Feb. 28 — becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to quit. His resignation stunned Catholics around the world. The 85-year-old pope dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators, though he had made it clear previously that he would quit if he became too old or infirm to continue.
His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for a Catholic Church that faces many challenges, such as the clerical sex abuse scandal, a dwindling priesthood and troubled relations with other faiths.
The status of the United States as a global superpower lessens the chance for an American pope, Paris said.
“People don't want the United States taking over the church,'' she said.
Regardless of who follows him, however, Omaha church officials and others say Benedict was right to step down if he believed that he could no longer handle the job and he actually may have set the church up permanently for a more seamless transition of leadership.
“For the century to come, I think that none of Benedict's successors will feel morally obliged to remain until their death,” said Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois.
Though New York's Dolan is considered a long shot to become pope, he is “a player on the world stage,” said Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln.
“Among American cardinals his name would come to mind,'' Conley said. “But I'm not going to second-guess the Holy Spirit.”
Given that half the world's Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere, there will once again be arguments for a pope to come from the developing world. Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, said a pope from South America or Central America is a possibility.
Cardinals from Europe and elsewhere have also been mentioned as possible successors.
Contenders also include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, a protégé and former theology student of Benedict's; and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican office for bishops.
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave. Currently, 118 cardinals are eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. However, four will turn 80 before the end of March.
Paris said although she was surprised at the resignation, she knew that Benedict was the type of leader who would put the church first. “He is a humble man,'' she said. “He's not going to hang on to power just to hang on to power.”
Conley said it “takes a lot of humility and courage to let go and say there is someone who can do a better job.”
Monsignor Joseph Hanefeldt, pastor of Omaha's Christ the King Catholic Church, agreed. Before returning to Omaha last year, Hanefeldt spent five years in Rome, the last three as the director of spiritual formation at the U.S. bishops' seminary.
“I think this should be viewed as a very responsible decision,'' he said.
Omaha Archbishop George Lucas was traveling Monday and was unavailable for an interview.
In a written statement, he said: “We see this decision, in the context of a lifetime of service to the Lord, as an act of great pastoral love for all of us in the Church. I remain grateful for his leadership and fatherly care.”
The Vatican stressed that Benedict remained lucid and that no specific medical condition prompted his resignation. It was an independent decision, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Omaha Jewish and Muslim leaders said they hope the next pope will be a leader who will reach out to other religions.
Benedict had communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims. He riled the Muslim world with a speech in September 2006, five years after the terrorist attacks in the United States, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”
Despite that, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Omaha said that overall, relations have been good between Catholics and Muslims, particularly in the United States.
Mutual respect between the two faiths is essential, said the spokesman, Fa'iz Rab. He hopes the next pope will renew and continue that effort.
Rabbi Steven Abraham of Beth El Synagogue said he hopes for a pope who will make it a top priority to reach out to the Jewish people.
The resignation will allow Benedict to hold great sway over the choice of his successor, although he will not vote. He has already handpicked the bulk of the College of Cardinals — the leaders of the church who will elect the next pope — to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
Paris, the College of St. Mary professor, agreed that Benedict could influence the selection.
She also said the College of Cardinals might devote more time and energy to electing a pope than is possible for most successions. That's because in the past, when cardinals were preparing to pick a new pope, the church was also planning a papal funeral.
Church law says a pope's decision to resign must be “freely made and properly manifested.” Only a handful have done it.
The last to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell in his epic poem “The Divine Comedy” for it.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Omaha, said the resignation raises interesting questions, such as: What are the roles and responsibilities of a former pope?
“The church is in uncharted waters,'' he said.
Benedict said he would serve the church for the remainder of his days “through a life dedicated to prayer.” The Vatican said that immediately after his resignation, which takes effect at 8 p.m. Feb. 28, Benedict would go to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat south of Rome, and then would live in a cloistered monastery.
HOW POPES ARE PICKED
» Just as when a pope dies, the Vatican will summon a conclave of cardinals. It must begin 15 to 20 days after Benedict’s Feb. 28 resignation.
» Cardinals eligible to vote — those under age 80 — are sequestered within Vatican City and take an oath of secrecy.
» Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible to be chosen pope. But only cardinals have been selected since 1378.
» Two ballots are held each morning and two each afternoon in the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority is required. (Benedict in 2007 reverted to this two-thirds majority rule, reversing a 1996 decision by Pope John Paul II, who had decreed that a simple majority could be invoked after about 12 days of inconclusive voting.)
» Ballots are burned after each vote. Black smoke from the chapel chimney tells the public that no decision was reached. White smoke and bells signal that a new pope has been chosen and has accepted.
» The new pope is introduced from the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square with the words “Habemus Papam!” (Latin for “We have a pope!”)
This story contains information from the Associated Press.