I'm trying to imagine the sort of headlines that must have appeared in Canadian newspapers following Neil Armstrong's 1969 spacewalk. "Man sets foot on thing that controls Canada's tides," perhaps. Or maybe, "Green cheese: possible new poutine topping?"
It's a testament to the massive ego of this modest nation that our media's efforts to provide a "Canadian angle" on international news -- once little more than a dash of local context at the end -- now routinely overshadows the core story itself. We're debating changes to our citizenship laws at the moment because the Canadian press made such a fuss over the allegation that one of the terrorists involved in last month's Algerian hostage standoff might have held a Canadian passport. On Tuesday, the Globe and Mail provided a Canadian's guide to watching President Obama's state of the Union, lest anyone accidentally follow American politics for its own sake. And Monday's shockingly unprecedented, six-centuries-of-tradition-breaking resignation from the spiritual ruler of the world's one billion Catholics has largely been spun as "Canadian to get promotion."
Ever since the Holy Father announced that he has to go away, the Canadian press has been endlessly fascinated with the possibility that a Canuck archbishop named Marc Cardinal Ouellet might be the next to occupy the throne of St. Pete. Normally it takes a "Best Foreign Film" Oscar nod to generate this kind of buzz about a French-Canadian you've never heard of.
"Will a former small-town boy from Quebec become the next pope?" asked the front page of Tuesday's Globe and Mail. "Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet among frontrunners to replace Pope Benedict XVI," echoed the National Post. He's the "most likely successor" declares columnist Raymond de Souza. The "outright favourite" cheers Simon Kent at the Sun.
And the corroborating evidence for Ouellet's shoe-in status? Well, the Post notes that Irish bookies seem to be fond of him (current odds: 4-1), while other reporters draw their fawning conclusions after interviewing the local boy's conveniently proximate social circle (which might be a somewhat biased sample. I mean, wouldn't your pals describe you as "pope-worthy?").
But there's some heartier hosannas in here, too. Ouellet has a geographic advantage that's said to make him attractive to the Vatican set; the Church is interested in cultivating leadership beyond the decadent, lapsed-Catholic west, which could make a pope from Quebec very attractive to cardinals who know absolutely nothing about the place. It's also been observed that Father Marc is considered a compelling "traditionalist" on key theological and social issues, has strong ties to important Catholic communities in Latin America, and, as Stephen Colbert noted, is super polite.
There's an old Vatican saying, however, that when it comes to papal elections, the man who "walks in a pope walks out a cardinal." When Pope Paul VI died in 1978, there was a general media consensus that the conclave would seek a non-Italian replacement. Rome's getting way more cosmopolitan, they insisted confidently. And Catholics got a guy named Albino Luciani. When he died a few days later, the press mea culpa'd hard. Fine, they conceded, I guess it's Italians forever. The Church then promptly elected its first Polish leader.
Press predictions that Cardinal Ratzinger would replace John Paul II in 2005 proved more on the money, but then again, JP2 hung around for so long, and left town so often, grooming a clear papal understudy was pretty much mandatory. As head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades, Ratzinger was essentially Rome's VP-internal for much of his predecessor's administration, and an heir that could have hardly been more apparent.
Cardinal Ouellet, in contrast, though often described as "close" to the outgoing pope, doesn't seem to have quite the same slam-dunk resume. He's only been part of the Vatican in-crowd since 2010, when he was appointed boss of something called the "Congregation of Bishops," which, according to the CBC is basically the Holy See's HR department, and the Canadian Press (despite a cocksure caveat that Marc's "perhaps even the front-runner") notes that in the wake of the overly-cerebral Benedict, the Church might not be too keen to install another cloistered "theologian and professor" to its top job. Plus he's got a bit of pedophilia scandal dirt on him -- though that's hardly been a deal-breaker in the past.
Of course, all this analysis could prove to be just so much useless backseat Pope-mobiling.
In these secular times of ours, it's difficult for journalists -- especially those making a living covering the Machiavellian world of partisan politics, to fathom an election with voters motivated by purposes larger than optics and opportunism.
Most of the cardinals cooped in next month's conclave will genuinely view their duty as a divine one, and godly logic tends to work in mysterious ways. The two John Pauls were not particularly famous or accomplished prior to their elevation, and it's equally possible that Christ's next vicar will follow in their humble footsteps, and leapfrog the entire bigwig brigade currently starring in all those cute little "possible pope" slide shows.
Likewise, if Cardinal Ouellet does win, it won't necessarily because his electors felt the need to pick a pope using the same petty calculations of regionalism, charisma, and ideology voters in this country use to choose prime ministers.
Not everything in life is as Canadian as we might like.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, splashes holy water during his visit to the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on February 27, 2008. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
TRIER, GERMANY - APRIL 13: Cardinal Marc Ouellet holds a mass in celebration of The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe at the Cathedral of St Peter on April 13, 2012 in Trier, Germany. The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe runs from April 13 to May 13, during which hundreds of thousands pilgrims are expected to view the Holy Robe. The robe, said to have been worn by Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion, is housed by the cathedral and rarely displayed for public viewing. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)
The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi poses during the presentation of Pope Benedict XVI's new book 'Childhood of Jesus' to the press on November 20, 2012 at the Vatican. “Childhood of Jesus” is the third volume of Joseph Ratzinger's 'Jesus of Nazareth' series. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (L) and the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola chat at La Scala theatre in Milan on June 1, 2012 during the 7th World Meeting of Families. Benedict attended a concert at the prestigious Scala opera house to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim. AFP PHOTO / POOL / DANIEL DAL ZENNARO (Photo credit should read DANIEL DAL ZENNARO/AFP/GettyImages)
President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Vatican City Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (C) pay his respects at the Golden Temple Sikh Shrine in Amritsar on November 11, 2011. Tauran along with four members visited the city to attend a religious seminary on Sikhism and Christians to be held at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar on November 12. AFP PHOTO/NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI talks with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of CEI (Italian Bishops' Conference), during an audience with the Curia for Christmas greetings, in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, in Vatican City, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. The Pope met with Cardinals and members of the Roman Curia for an exchange of greetings ahead of the year end festivities. (AP Photo/Claudio Peri, Pool)
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan speaks to the press in his residence, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Dolan says he was as startled as the rest of the world about Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign later this month due to failing health. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines takes place for an audience with the pontif on November 26, 2012 at Paul VI hall at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI led an audience to the six non-European prelates appointed two-days ago as new members of the College of Cardinals. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, right, arrives for a meeting, at the Vatican, Monday, March 4, 2013. Cardinals from around the world have gathered inside the Vatican for their first round of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) CORRECTION: An earlier photo incorrectly identified Bernard Cardinal Agre, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cote D'Ivoire as Cardinal Arinze
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