When the news came that Pope John Paul II was facing his final hours, Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels was on a mission to China that exemplified his stature as a leading church diplomat.
Danneels met government officials, Chinese Catholics, and representatives of other religions on a rare visit by a cardinal to the communist nation, which severed ties with the Vatican in 1951. He cut short his trip and rushed home to hold a memorial Mass for the pope Sunday in Brussels. The cardinal-archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels was coy about his own chances of succeeding to the papacy. "That is up to heaven, what God is thinking about that, and up to the cardinals. I have no comment," Danneels said before flying to Rome for the pope's funeral.
The multilingual 71-year-old was more forthcoming about the qualities needed for a new pontiff. "The church will look for a man who will continue, in a certain sense, all the good things that this pope has begun and will also be very open and sensitive to all the new difficulties and new problems...because the church is in complete revolution and evolution, so he has to adapt," Danneels told Associated Press Television News.
Although Danneels is seen as having a deft diplomatic touch useful for sensitive interfaith talks, some Vatican observers say his views are too progressive for conservatives within the conclave that will select the new pope in the coming weeks. Belgian experts give Danneels only an outside chance, if his fellow cardinals cannot agree on one of the front-runners from Italy or Latin America.
Danneels has long spoken forcefully about the need for greater "collegiality"--a Vatican code word for more democracy in John Paul's centralized church. He has also suggested that elderly popes should abdicate if they become too frail to fulfill papal duties. Although close to John Paul, who appointed him as cardinal in 1983, Danneels differed on the sensitive issues of contraception. He told a Dutch TV station last year that an HIV-positive person should use a condom rather than risk transmitting the virus.
"When someone is HIV-positive and his partner says, 'I want to have [sexual] relations with you,' then he does not have to do it," Danneels said. "But if he does, he has to use a condom. Otherwise he will commit a sin."
Danneels also moved swiftly to distance the Belgian church from comments made by Cardinal Gustaaf Joos, who denounced gays as "sexual perverts" in an interview before his death last year. (AP)