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Pope's replacement will follow in footsteps of giant: cardinals

In the days following the funeral, 117 cardinals will gather at the Vatican to chose a successor

Canadian Press

Quebec — The man who replaces Pope John Paul will have to walk in the footsteps of a giant, according to three Canadians who are part of the exclusive group that will select a new pontiff.

In the days following the Pope's funeral, 117 cardinals, including three Canadians, will gather at the Vatican to chose his successor at a special, secretive meeting known as a conclave.

"This conclave will be an extraordinary event after 20-some years, and after the profile of this Pope, who was a giant. A giant," Marc Ouellet, the youngest of three Canadian cardinals who will take part, told The Canadian Press.

"I like to call him John Paul the Great. This Pope was a prophet. Why a prophet? No person in human history has gathered together so many human beings, all over the planet."

The Pope travelled the world like no pontiff before him, becoming known as the Pilgrim Pope and drawing millions of followers at every stop. He was a leading church figure in Poland during Nazi occupation and Communist regimes. He was credited with helping end the Cold War and make peace with other world religions.

However, the Canadian church leaders who knew John Paul said it was his ability to talk to God through deep meditation and convey that close relationship to church followers that made him a great Pope.

"As an external observer, I can tell you that when he prayed, he was in another world," said Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Montreal cardinal who organized the Pope's visit to the city in 1984. "He lost the sense of time. His people who organize things had to remind him he's not in heaven."

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte said he believes the Pope learned to meditate so deeply after his mother, father and brother died, all before he was an adult.

"The only person with which he has always been in contact is God," Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte said. "In a world where a lot of persons think God is dead, it's important, this possibility to say no, he's not dead. He's still alive and I have met him."

Before he became Pope, John Paul made two trips to Canada besides his official visits in 1984, 1987 and 2002. When he was a bishop in Poland, Karl Wojtyla visited Canada in 1969 and 1974.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte met him on the second visit, but the younger Wojtyla gave no hint of what he would later become.

"Who could have said Wojtyla would have a charisma like this?" said Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte. "He was a nice fellow, but a very silent man. He listened a lot, he was very attentive. My lasting impression was that he was a strong man who was going to live a very long time because he had a strong fork, a strong appetite."

According to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the next pontiff is unlikely to match the Pope's star quality.

"Maybe we won't have such a gifted personality, but it doesn't matter," Cardinal Marc Ouellet said. "Your main task as pope is to confirm your brothers in the faith. The heart of the matter is not a gifted personality."

In some ways, John Paul has been two popes in one, the cardinals agree. The Pope of the early 1980s won followers with his torrid travel pace and energetic approach.

The current Pope is standing as a symbol for all the handicapped and elderly who are so easily discarded in modern society, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte said.

"Maybe only the church can have this attitude, to support a leader like that," Cardinal Marc Turcotte said. "In most organizations, a leader who is sick is going to be rejected."

Critics say the Pope froze church positions on issues of justice, such as equal rights for homosexuals and women's rights, particularly access to birth control and the freedom to take part in the church hierarchy.

But the cardinals say the Pope was doing his job as defender of the faith.

No cardinal dares muse on the identity of the next pope, but scores of lists with dozens of names have circulated since the Pope first had health problems in the 1990s.

"There is a joke in Rome that this is the longest conclave in history because it started in 1992," said Cardinal Marc Ouellet. "We've had lists, then we've had new lists and so on. The names that are circulating are serious names, to be sure, but it's not exhaustive. All options are open."

Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte said the issues facing the church's next supreme leader are clear.

He will have to find a way to draw Catholics back to the church while keeping faith with tradition, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte said.

"The most important thing is the transmission of the faith to the youngest generation," Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte said. "There was a kind of leak where it wasn't transmitted to young people. We must try very hard to fix that."

Cardinal Marc Ouellet has more ambitious goals for the church. He wants to transmit the faith beyond traditional strongholds in the western world.

"Asia. There's a continent where Christianity is barely present," he said. "You have China, where you had Communism for many years and a sort of atheism. It could be mature for the Christian message now that they have evacuated a part of their own tradition."

"The church is there to convey the message of the gospel to the whole world."

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