The next pontiff, whoever he is, will have an enormous task of reforming the Roman Curia

The identity of the next Pope is now at the forefront of many people’s minds, and given the fact we now live in an age of 24 hour news coverage, Facebook and twitter, the space for speculation has certainly grown since the year when Popes John Paul I and John Paul II were elected. One thing stands out from that interesting year in my memory. I followed the news closely in the lead up to the conclaves, and at no point did anyone mention Albino Luciani (with the exception of one passing mention in Time) or Karol Wojtyla. When both men stepped out onto the balcony they did so as complete unknowns, and great surprises. Perhaps this time too the next Pope may be someone of whom we have not yet heard? There are after all 117 Cardinal electors, and not all of them, even now, will be given wall to wall coverage.

That year, 1978, the year of the three Popes, was also the year in which we heard insistently about the desirability of a Pope from the Third World. That idea is still with us: perhaps its time has come at last? But we were told another thing too: it was impossible that we could ever have an American Pope. The reasoning behind this, I seem to remember at the time, was that an American Pope would mean the Catholic Church being seen as aligned to the West, when the Church had to steer a neutral course between the West and the Soviet bloc.

At present, with the Soviet bloc being history, we are still told that we cannot have an American Pope, on the grounds that America is the world’s only superpower. Poor America, it cannot win. Only when it has sunk into total obscurity will it be able to give the world a Pope.

But why should this be the case? Who says an American can’t be Pope? Why should anyone be disqualified, or indeed qualified, by nationality?

When the See of Peter was last vacant, I was commissioned by a national newspaper to write an article on the Conclave, which was never published. But I remember saying that the first task that awaited the new Pontiff was the reform of the Roman Curia. That reform has still not been undertaken; indeed the Roman Curia seems more dysfunctional then ever. (There is a good analysis of this here.)

The task of reform is something that the new Pope, whoever he is, will not be able to put off. The pressure for reform is surely now irresistible. However, it will take great energy, and huge willpower, to cleanse the Augean stable. When I picture the enormity of the job ahead of the new Pope, I see him as the sort of man who will take no nonsense. Who is it the enemies of reform most fear, I wonder? Might it be an American Pope?

Readers interested in the nationality of Cardinals might find this list from Wikipedia of great usefulness over the coming days.