WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Pope John Paul II has spent part of his summer vacation at Castel Gandolfo deciding on nominations to fill top Vatican posts soon to be made vacant by compulsory retirement, according to church sources Wednesday.
He needs to find a replacement for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Bavarian-born, rigidly conservative Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith who has been second in importance only to John Paul II himself in putting the clock back -- as many observers see it -- on the progressive reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
At the same time the pope faces key vacancies in the area of Vatican foreign policy at a time when the church is seeking to play a more active role in international affairs. Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano -- effectively the prime minister of the small city state -- is among the senior prelates who have reached the mandatory retirement age for Catholic clergy of 75.
A successor will also have to be found for the Vatican's de facto foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Luis Tauran of France, who is only 70, but wants to resign because of ill health. In addition, the sources say, the pope needs to name prelates to several other senior posts ranging from a new head of the congregation for religious communities, and the governor of Vatican City.
John Paul II, 83, is suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease. He gets about only in a wheel chair or on a small wheeled platform. But at the Vatican there is no longer the same concern of a couple of years ago that he was close the end of his life. Sandro Magister, a leading Vatican expert, wrote in L'Espresso magazine recently that "the current view of senior churchmen is that pope Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II's real name) will survive for quite a while longer."
October 16 marks the 25th anniversary of his papal election, when his pontificate will become the second longest in history -- after Pope Pius IX, who was pontiff for 35 years and seven months.
The sources say this explains why the new nominations do not seem like stop-gap appointments. On the contrary, one commentator says Pope John Paul II appears to be filling the Roman Curia -- the Catholic Church's central bureaucracy -- with relatively young conservative prelates who will shape the course of the next pontificate because they would be hard for a successor to dislodge.
Although no official announcements are likely until the pope returns to the Vatican from his summer palace in Rome's Alban Hills, Ratzinger's successor at what used to be known as the Holy Office, which directed the Inquisition, will almost certainly be his deputy, Archbishop Angelo Amato. The 65-year-old Italian theologian, who is a member of the Silesian order, can be expected to follow the ultra-orthodox line as his superior and mentor.
Sources say Amato was the author the recently issued controversial Vatican document "Dominus Jesus." Its theme is that Christianity is the true faith, and not all religions are equally valid ways to salvation -- a position that had one critic complaining that the document had sent the ecumenical movement almost back to square one.
Last month, Amato also published a letter in the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana challenging what he called "the myth" that the 16th century astronomer Galileo was imprisoned, badly treated, and even tortured by his church interrogators. He said recent evidence shows that Galileo was comfortably lodged and well looked after during his trial on charges of heresy for saying that the earth rotates round the sun. A couple of years ago, Pope John Paul II declared the file on Galileo closed but stopped short of admitting that the church had been wrong to try him.
To succeed Cardinal Sodano the pope is reliably believed to have picked Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, currently Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, and himself sometimes mentioned as "papable," that is, a possible pope. Re is a veteran career diplomat of ripe experience who rose to the level of substitute (deputy) Secretary of State. In his present post he is responsible for advising the pope on the appointment of new bishops throughout the world. He also persuaded U.S. bishops to tone down the tough "one slip you're out" rule adopted two years ago for dealing with suspected pedophile priests.
The changes in the "political" branch of the Roman Curia come at a time when Pope John Paul has shown signs of wanting the Holy See -- diplomatic speak for the Vatican -- to play a more direct role in international affairs. At the United Nations, for example, the Holy See has been discreetly lobbying -- so far unsuccessfully -- to change its current observer status to a more active representational role.
Prior to the Iraq war, the pope sent an envoy to Washington and Baghdad in an attempt to prevent the conflict. To the pope's intense disappointment, the peace attempt failed. Other diplomatic initiatives have also had mixed results, but observers point out this is a far cry from the criticism leveled at Pope Pius XII for staying aloof of developments in World War II, and in particular failing to condemn the Nazis for their persecution of the Jews.
Last year, a senior papal representative was involved in resolving the stand-off in Bethlehem, when Palestinian fighters were besieged by Israeli security forces inside the Church of the Nativity. But earlier this year, the Vatican got nowhere with its campaign to have a reference to Europe's Christian roots written into the preamble of the new draft European Union constitution.