Today's Papers

A Long Goodbye

Pope John Paul II’s impending death dominates the papers. In official announcements and public prayers yesterday, Vatican officials portrayed the pope’s condition as dire and declining. “This evening or this night, Christ flings open the doors to the pope,” an archbishop told thousands of faithful Catholics gathered in St. Peter’s Square. But, defying predictions of his imminent demise, John Paul II, a once-tireless traveler who survived an assassin’s bullet and outlasted the Communist bloc from which he hailed, lived to see at least one more morning.

In a statement everyone quotes, a Vatican spokesman said that “the [pope’s] biological parameters are notably compromised.” This seems a major understatement. The New York Times reports that John Paul II has experienced a “swift downward spiral” in his health since developing a urinary tract infection on Thursday. His heart is failing, his breathing is shallow, and his kidneys are no longer functioning, which, the NYT says, means “virtually all of the pope’s major organ systems are now compromised.” He has decided not to seek hospital treatment and has declined the use of an artificial respirator. The Los Angeles Times, citing an Italian newspaper,reports that Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, a Pole and one of the pope’s closest confidantes, has administered his last rites. Up high, the Washington Post quotes a Vatican spokesman describing the pope as “lucid, fully aware, and, I must say, very serene.” Holy See officials vehemently denied reports in the Italian press over the course of the day that the pope was dead, in a coma, or had lost all brain function.

Only the NYT notes why the pope’s state of consciousness is important: “Roman Catholic canon law makes no provisions for what happens if a pope falls into a coma. … [There] is no convention for who would hold power, how power would be transferred or even who would make medical decisions for an unconscious pope.”

Everyone fronts huge pictures of the emotional scene outside St. Peter’s and the papal apartments, where an estimated 70,000 people held vigil as a light burned in the pope’s window late into the night. The LAT runs a separate front-page piece on the vigil, where the faithful “held candles, knelt on cobblestones and huddled in each other’s arms.” The WP files from the pope’s hometown of Wadowice, Poland, where he was born in 1920 and baptized Karol Wojtyla. The NYT, flexing some foreign-bureau muscle, fronts a piece with reactions from Catholics from Newark to Nairobi, demonstrating that the world over, everyone has pretty much the same thing to say about the pope dying.

Inside, the LAT reports that influential hometown Cardinal Roger Mahoney took a night flight to Rome, as cardinals from around the world prepared to gather for the pope’s funeral, as well as the conclave to follow, at which one of them will be voted the successor. The LAT runs a graphic on the process for selecting a papal successor, while the WP fronts an analysis that oulines the challenges confronting the next pope and handicaps some likely contenders. For political reasons, an American is highly unlikely to be elected. Because “nearly two-thirds of the voting cardinals come from outside Europe,” the WP says, some think that the next pope might well come from the developing world. But, as a voluminous, gossipy, and often hilarious feature in the NYT points out, no one really knows what will happen at the conclave, where 119 cardinals are eligible to vote, making “unpredictable swings of momentum toward unexpected candidates” possible. Last summer, an excellent feature in the Atlantic Monthly (sub. req.) made the same point, adding that the cardinals will be giving great weight to one subjective question far from the papers’ concerns about regional politicking, abortion, or molestation scandals: “What kind of a believer is he?”

In non-pontiff news, the NYT fronts word of election results in Zimbabwe, an event the other papers stuff. The vote appears to have handed a landslide victory to the party of President Robert Mugabe, the freedom-fighter-turned-international pariah who has been engaged in a long, dirty fight with opposition supporters, white commercial farmers, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Bush administration denounced the vote as “not free and fair,” though by all accounts it was more peaceful than Zimbabwe’s last major election, in which the opposition performed better.

The LAT fronts the fascinating tale of a group of Muslim French teenagers, mostly the children of African immigrants, who left their working class neighborhood to fight in Iraq. The kids trained in a Paris park and passed through Koranic schools in Syria, which “have become steppingstones and cover stories for Iraq-bound militants” in the same way schools in Pakistan were a gateway into Afghanistan. The story says such militancy is a growing trend among Muslim youth in Europe and that “Iraq has become the new Chechnya, a promised land of jihad.” One of the teens was killed in a suicide car bombing, two others died in battle with American troops, and another was captured in Fallujah.

On the good-news side of the Iraq ledger, the NYT reports inside today that a group of 64 Sunni clerics issued a statement calling on their followers to join the national army and police, a “striking turnaround” that American officials took as a sign that the insurgency is weakening.

Inside, the WP reports the latest development in the troubling saga of the school shooting spree at the Red Lake Indian reservation. Authorities now believe that as many as 20 students knew about the plot ahead of time, and four collaborated in planning it.

To return to the pope for a moment: The NYT’spiece on the papal selection process is filled with great details about baroque church traditions and the often-sordid history behind them. After a pope dies, his ring is smashed, a vestigial anti-forgery measure dating to times when the ring was used to seal official documents. Then his apartment is sealed, a precaution taken because “in the past, looting by cardinals and the populace was a problem.” The conclave is conducted under rules enforcing “rigorous secrecy.” The cardinals are permitted no contact with the outside world, and leakers are threatened with excommunication. (And you thought Andy Card was tough …) When a winner is selected, a papal official will go a balcony of St. Peter’s and announce, “Habemus papam,” or “We have a pope.”