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Oz has 'roughie' in papal succession fight

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BRISBANE -- It may be one of the more solemn observances in the Catholic liturgical year, but Pope Benedict's decision to give up the papacy on the eve of Lent does seem excessive.

His Holiness could have chosen a more traditional self-denial during his annual Lenten journey of self-examination.

Chocolate, alcohol and calumniating his cardinals are all sacrifices worthy of a man who, though infallible in matters related to his rank, is a sinner outside office hours just like the rest of us.

But giving up Rome does carry the air of a truly grand gesture, and in Australia it has caused a small but intense flurry of speculation that the next feet filling the shoes of the fisherman will belong to an antipodean Pope.

Canada is fielding the impressive Cardinal Marc Ouellet as its contender in the vote soon to take place in the Sistine Chapel, and naturally we wish him well.

But Australia also has what North Americans might call a "dog in this fight," or in our case a "horse in this race.''

Australians have developed an element of celestial ambition since the 2010 elevation of Mary MacKillop to sainthood -- the first ever Australian to achieve such a lofty title.

And Cardinal George Pell, though something of a pantomime villain among the progressive left, has international cred in a nation not known for its strong religious tradition.

He's been a forceful presence on the social and political landscape for decades and fits neatly into the theological conservatism tradition ruling in Rome since John Paul II.

Pell was also a talented footballer in his younger years and still has an imposing physical presence -- possibly not the traits the Cardinals are looking for as they flip through the various resumés.

But there's no doubt he could bang a few heads together when Vatican politics get a little robust. The years he spent serving behind the bar at his dad's pub in the regional town of Ballarat have also given him a feel for the concerns of the ordinary working men and women in his flock.

Pell insists he has no ambitions to follow in St. Peter's footsteps, telling the Age newspaper in Melbourne the idea was "fantastic" -- as in totally fanciful.

Catholic theologian Paul Collins agrees. Pell will probably not be elected, partly because Australia is not a big player in the life of the global church, Collins told the newspaper.

But the cardinal's influence could come into play in backroom negotiations.

''He will be an important influence in getting a group of cardinals together, probably on the conservative side of the ledger.''

According to Australia's omniscient authority on all matters ecclesiastical, Canada is a long way ahead of Australia in the race to Rome.

Sportingbet Australian this week had Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana as a clear cut $3.50 favourite ahead of Cardinal Ouellet at $4.50.

But Cardinal Pell is still in the hunt, even if he is what is widely referred to in Australian race track talk as a "roughie.'' By mid-week he had blown out to $81.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2013 A8

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