Theologians say Vatican insider likely will succeed Pope Benedict XVI

Specialists on the Roman Catholic Church said they expect a Vatican insider to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who told church leaders today he will retire at the end of the month.

Boston College theology professor Thomas Groome, author of “What Makes Us Catholic,” said in an interview this morning that the resignation of Benedict XVI will be a major aspect of his legacy for the church.

“I admire Benedict for doing it,’’ Groome said. “It brings the papacy into the 21st century. Pope John Paul II should have done it, but didn’t.’’

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Groome and another BC theology professor, Stephen Pope, said the next Catholic leader must be a bridge builder, first among the splintered faithful of the church and then to other religions, especially the Muslim faith, which counts some 1 billion adherents worldwide.

Pope said the next pontiff must reach out to women, especially Western women in their 20s and 30s, who may leave Catholicism if their role in the church is not expanded. He also said the next pope must be a good administrator, a skill Benedict lacked.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, could be the pick of the insiders, BC’s Pope said. But he also said the church may be on the verge of choosing its first black pontiff, Cardinal Peter Turkson.

Turkson, a Ghanaian who leads the Vatican-based office focused on justice and peace, could become the next pope, especially because the church has been growing stronger in the Southern Hemisphere while slowly losing adherents in the Northern Hemisphere, Pope said.

“Many American Catholics are looking for a new departure, some movement away from some of the policies and rulings and so on of the last 30 years,’’ Groome said. “We are looking for a bridge builder.’’

Both BC specialists said it was highly unlikely an American would ascend to the papacy. Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Groome said, has the integrity, faith, and leadership skills needed by the next pope. But because O’Malley is an American, Groome said, he will never become the leader of the Holy See “because then America would hold the two most prestigious powerful offices in the world’’—pope and president of the United States.

BC’s Pope praised O’Malley personally, but said he lacks the connections with Vatican insiders who will dominate the College of Cardinals when it meets later this year.

“The people voting for the pope like to know the pope,’’ he said. “The chances of getting elected [are increased] if they know you, if you’ve worked in Rome, in the Vatican, and they have seen you off-duty, and they know you personally.’’