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John Allen dissects the two main schools of thought regarding the next conclave: Italian or Latin American.

Speaking with members of the College of Cardinals, there seem two grand hypotheses these days for the next papal election: an Italian and a candidate from the Third World. The first holds that, all things being equal, the next pope should be one of the 21 Italian cardinals under 80; the other that that the next pope should emerge from among the 45 cardinals under 80 from the developing world (including 24 Latin Americans).

An incident in Rome last week illustrates part of the logic for the Italian hypothesis.

John Paul II met in the Vatican with a delegation from a few of the Roman parishes he has not yet visited during his more than 25 years as Bishop of Rome. One of the pastors jokingly complained that the pope speaks all manner of foreign languages when he travels abroad, yet his own flock in Rome had never heard him speak in their local dialect of Romanesco. John Paul promptly fired off a few phrases in Romanesco, including damose da fa (“let’s get down to business”) and semo Romani “we’re Romans”), before acknowledging that he has never really learned to speak the local tongue.

“Does that mean I’m not a good bishop of Rome?” he asked.

The question was meant in good humor, especially since it was pronounced by the Polish pope in flawless Italian, but it illustrates part of the pastoral logic that still leads many cardinals to think of an Italian when it comes time to choose a pope. The successor of Peter is, first of all, shepherd of the Christians in Rome, and hence, as one cardinal put it to me recently, “I think you first of all have to look around for an Italian who could do the job.”

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