Pell laughs off suggestions of being next in line

CARDINAL George Pell agrees the idea of him as the next pope is ''fantastic'', but he means fantastic in the traditional sense of fanciful, not the modern sense of terrific.

As election of the next pope approaches, ''some of the suggestions made will be simply fantastic. Some of them will be made to meet local demand for a candidate that they know,'' Cardinal Pell said in an interview carried on the Sydney Archdiocese website yesterday.

''Will you be staying in Rome or would that be fantastic?'' the Archdiocese's head of communications, Katrina Lee, asked.

''Of course I will be coming home'' he said, laughing.

Catholic theologian Paul Collins said he did not think Cardinal Pell had any chance of being elected. Rather, his main role in the convocation of cardinals who elect the pope would probably be in forming a voting bloc. ''He will be an important influence in getting a group of cardinals together, probably on the conservative side of the ledger,'' Dr Collins said.

''Australia is just too far away from anything of major significance for the church'' for Cardinal Pell to be a contender, said Neil Ormerod, professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University.

He said the cardinals will be looking for someone to tackle the big issues for the next two decades in Catholicism, including the ''role of sexuality in human flourishing'', the handling of sex abuse within the church, and the church's challenges in the developing world, including the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Africa, the growing Pentecostal presence in Latin America and interfaith dialogue in Asia.

''They may well be looking for someone from those areas,'' Professor Ormerod said.

Soon after the shock news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, Sportingbet Australia had Cardinal Pell as a $41 outsider to be the next pope.

The favourite was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at $3.50, then Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada at $4.50 and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria at $5.

The next incumbent will need to be fluent in several languages, media savvy, with a depth of theological scholarship and a personality that unites rather than divides, according to Father Brian Lucas, general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

And preferably not as old as Pope Benedict XVI, he suggests. ''We are probably looking at someone who is either side of 70,'' Father Lucas said.

In an exchange with school students reported in Fairfax Media regional papers in 2008, Cardinal Pell's answer to the question of how he rated his chances of becoming the next pope was more direct. ''You would get very good odds. And I wouldn't suggest you invest a penny,'' he joked.

This story Pell laughs off suggestions of being next in line first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.