LONDON - So centralized is the Roman Catholic Church that comparisons with Tibetan Buddhism or the politicized Shia Islam of Iran leap to mind. Just as it really matters who is Dalai Lama or Velayat-e-fakih, so it really matters who is pope - and in the latter case, it matters to more than a billion people.
So it is of some significance that Pope John Paul II turns 80 today."
John Paul II sees himself more or less consciously as the last pope in the traditional, Latin, absolutist, universalist sense of the term, that is to say a semi-mystical figure closer to God than to men," said journalist Giancarlo Zizola of Il Sole-24 Ore of Milan recently. The next pope will have the daunting task of defending John Paul's controversial legacy, and he is unlikely to have the advantage of being a semi-mystical figure.
"There's a danger of terrific polarization after this pope," warned John Wilkins, editor of the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, a couple of years ago. His whole reign has been described as an attempt to repeal the Enlightenment, and even his warmest supporter would admit that he has pushed the church into positions far more conservative than a consensus of the clergy would have supported at the time of his election.
By sheer energy and force of personality, John Paul II has resisted many of the changes in church practice and doctrine that seemed almost inevitable before he became pope in 1978, from "liberation theology" and married priests to ending the ban on contraception and the condemnation of homosexuality.
And he has reigned so long that practically all of the 112 cardinals young enough to have the right to vote for the next pope (he has banned cardinals over 80 from voting) are men whom he personally chose for their conservative views.
A mere 58 when he was elevated to the papacy, John Paul II was not slowed down by bullet wounds from an assassination attempt in 1981. He went on skiing, working 16-hour days and traveling tirelessly (he has visited nearly 200 countries) until 1992, when doctors removed a malignant tumor the size of an orange from his intestine.
Since then, however, he has had at least five bad falls, including one that fractured a shoulder bone and another that broke a thigh bone and necessitated a hip replacement.
By 1995 rumors were rife that he was suffering Parkinson's disease, and the following year the Vatican stopped denying it.
"One knows that his illness is leading to a progressive paralysis, but his spiritual faculties remain intact," his friend, Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, said last month. "This man, who used to be an athlete, is becoming more and more a prisoner of his own body." The disease may even deprive John Paul of the faculty of speech before it kills him, so the question of retirement cannot be avoided.
Only one of the 263 popes since St. Peter has ever retired: an illiterate mystic called Celestine who was voted into the office against his wish in 1294, promptly issued a papal bull permitting retirement, and then acted on it.
John Paul is not likely to retire voluntarily, given his strong sense of duty and of his own destiny. But, one way or another, the church will have to choose a new pope before long.
Discreet jockeying for position has already begun among the potential successors, though no candidate can afford to declare himself openly. Many speculate that the office will revert to an Italian (all popes for the four-and-a-half centuries before John Paul II were Italian), but the new pope is likely to be from the developing world.
Behind the autocratic manner and the dogmatic conservatism that has so annoyed liberal Catholics in the developed countries lies a fundamental calculation by the present pope: that more than two-thirds of the billion-plus Roman Catholics now live in the Third World and that only a strong, centralized hierarchy enforcing a clear and unchanging doctrine can hold such a disparate body together. In which case, it would also make sense for the next pope to be a charismatic conservative from the Third World.
The two men who come closest to fitting that description among the present College of Cardinals are Francis Arinze of Nigeria (who would be the first black pope since Gelasius I in 492-496), and Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana and president of the synod of Latin American bishops.
And if it isn't one of them, then it will probably be somebody very like them.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His articles are published in 45 countries.