Please excuse me if this seems a trifle indelicate, but one cannot help noticing all the stories about the Pope's state of health, and it will fall to you, in the office of Camerlengo, to arrange the next conclave. I wouldn't have mentioned it, except that I have just discovered Nostradamus predicts one for 1995. He says it will be a contest between a Frenchman and a Spaniard.

That sounds like a choice between the popular liberal Roger Etchegaray, once Archbishop of Marseilles but now one of your colleagues in the Vatican's civil service, and the newly appointed Archbishop of Madrid, Antonio Rouco.

That would be a straight fight between liberals and conservatives, which more or less sums up the position in which John Paul II will have left the Church.

Of course, Archbishop Rouco is not yet a cardinal, but it is time that John Paul created a few more. Now that cardinals aged over 80 have lost their vote, the number of electors and, in practice, potential candidates has dropped below 100. Any new batch is likely to reflect the present Pope's distinctively conservative outlook, which might seem to sway the choice. But a conclave, like football, is a funny old game, and one can never tell. Who would have guessed that cardinals appointed under Pius XII would have come up with a Pope John XXIII?

You will have the opportunity of a word with the cardinal selected to address his confreres as they enter the conclave. May I put forward a few ideas you might care to pass on?

Popes never openly repudiate the teaching of their venerable predecessors, but there are some things the next pontiff would do well to play down. Birth control is one. Many Catholics are sympathetic to the present Pope's stand on abortion, but contraception is a lost cause. The more popes have gone on about it, the more isolated the Church has appeared. One cannot help recalling some of the more backward-looking papal utterances of the past 100 years or so that have been quietly let drop: why not do the same with contraception?

Then there are the theologians. They have been told they can think what they like, provided that what they think coincides with what the Pope likes.

Perhaps next time round we could have a pope who was not quite so sure of himself, and left controversial subjects, the possibility of ordaining women, for example, open to debate?

Which brings me to my next point. It would be good to have a pope who recognised the boundaries of his office. I know that is a lot to ask, because in our scheme of things no one is above the Pope except God, and His advice is not always immediately available. Still, there is a limit to papal authority, and John Paul II has been given to overstepping it.

Finally, it would help if the next pope quite simply stayed at home, and remembered that, before everything else, he is Bishop of Rome. The practising Catholics of the Eternal City (a distressingly small proportion) need his presence rather more than the rest of us.

Michael Walsh (Photograph omitted)

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