by Viviane Hewitt in Rome UNOFFICIAL Vatican sources claimed this week that Pope John Paul II may have privately chosen the cardinal he would like to succeed him. And there was speculation that a long letter from the Pope to the prelate in question amounted to an attempt to signal the papal wishes to the hierarchy.
The sources said that this summer Pope John Paul 11 raised curial eyebrows by sending an unusually long letter to the Brazilian primate, Cardinal Archbishop Lucas Morcira Neves of Sao Salvador da Bahia, to congratulate him on the 25th anniversary of his consecration as bishop.
In the letter to Cardinal Neves, a 67-year-old conservative on doctrinal matters, John Paul II wrote: "I cannot but congratulate you from the depths of my heart. I cannot but... place my faith in you for the future." The Pope went on to praise the cardinal's work in the Roman curia, as vicepresident of the Council for the Laity and later as secretary to the Congregation of Bishops.
"I made you a cardinal as the irredoubtable proof of the great esteem in which 1 hold you personally, all your pastoral ministry and your episcopal ministry," the Pope told Cardinal Neves.
The Pope's letter thrusts Neves to the top of a list of "front-runners" believed by the Italian press to be his likely successors the see of St Peter. Pope John Paul II, who is 72, underwent a cancer operation in July.
The list of likely successors to the Pope had, until the inclusion of Cardinal Neves, reflected a widespread belief that the next pope would be an Italian. it
presents three leading "candidates" the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, the Jesuit Carlo Maria Martini; the Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, the archconservative Giacomo Biffi; and the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Camillo Ruini. Some observers, however, were viewing the Pope's letter to the Brazilian primate in the light of gestures made by past popes indicating their "favourites" for the succession.
Pope John XXIII publicly and privately pointed to Pope Paul VI as his successor, and Paul VI in his turn presented his pontifical stole to Cardinal Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I, who was then the Patriarch of Venice Observers said that Pope John Paul II's alleged preference for Neves would be consistent with his view that hope for the future of the Church lies in Latin America, the most Catholic continent, and Africa, home to the fastest growing Church.
Two black African cardinals in the college. however, are generally believed to be outsiders in the race. They are the Nigerian Francis Arinze. president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the Benin-born Bernardin Gantin, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops.