VATICAN CITY – The Vatican is perfectly capable of conducting its business when a pope is incapacitated or after he dies.
Among the figures who ensure continuity are the Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Angelo Sodano; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in charge of church doctrine; and Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, personal secretary to Pope John Paul II.
Then there is the Vatican’s centuries-old bureaucracy, the Curia – a finely tuned machine that handles the Vatican’s day-to-day operations.
In past centuries, popes sometimes delegated authority to Vatican officials who were nephews or other relatives.
Such nepotism is a thing of the past, and Sodano – whose role roughly corresponds to prime minister in a parliamentary democracy – took on an increasingly visible role after John Paul was hospitalized with the flu and breathing problems in February.
Ratzinger, who served as a guardian of the pope’s conservative policies on issues like contraception and abortion, assumed other key responsibilities after the pope fell ill.
American Cardinal James Stafford presided over key Holy Week observances in the absence of the pope.
Behind the scenes, however, it was Dziwisz – a Pole like John Paul – who served as guardian of the pontiff’s inner sanctum and interpreter of his intentions. When the pope was being treated at Rome’s Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, it was Dziwisz who screened visitors.
Although as an archbishop he is lower in rank than the cardinals, he publicly berated Ratzinger in October 2003 after the cardinal was quoted in a German magazine as saying the pope “was in a bad way” and that the faithful should pray for him.
“Cardinal Ratzinger was crying yesterday, explaining that he never gave an interview,” Dziwisz said then.
Despite the powerful figures who run church affairs during papal health crises, ultimate authority on important decisions such as appointment of bishops or policy revisions falls to the pontiff.
Even as he lay critically ill in his apartments at the Vatican on Friday, John Paul appointed a large number of bishops and other church officials, the Holy See said.
Another set of officials takes over after a pope dies, including the camerlengo, or chamberlain, who administers property and finances of the Holy See and organizes the conclave to elect a new pope.