National Catholic Reporter ®

October 21, 2001                                                                                                                    Vol. 1, No. 9

Throwing one more red hat
into the (unofficial) papal race

There is no formal process for nominating papabile — no petitions to file, no bumper stickers to print, no primaries to contest. Theoretically any baptized male Catholic could be elected as the successor to John Paul II. In fact, however, the next pope will almost certainly be a member of the College of Cardinals under 80, and within that group of 130 there are a few names who stand out.

My aim . . . is to put Husar’s red hat in the ring.

This week I want to introduce a new papabile, or candidate to be pope, to the world. He is Lubomyr Husar of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, a smiling, humble man whose life experience and theological outlook might just add up to the right stuff.

Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine

There is no formal process for nominating papabile — no petitions to file, no bumper stickers to print, no primaries to contest. Theoretically any baptized male Catholic could be elected as the successor to John Paul II. In fact, however, the next pope will almost certainly be a member of the College of Cardinals under 80, and within that group of 130 there are a few names who stand out. 

Anybody who follows church affairs could rattle off five: for example, Tettamanzi and Re of Italy, Danneels of Belgium, Hummes of Brazil, and Arinze of Nigeria. Chatter in the press has created a buzz around them.

My aim this week, therefore, is to put Husar’s red hat in the ring.

I first met Husar, made a cardinal by John Paul II in February, during the pope’s June trip to Ukraine. I was impressed by the devotion Husar inspires among the 5.5 million Greek Catholics in the country, and by how deftly he manages the complex relationship with the Orthodox. I was also struck by the fact that in sessions with reporters I never saw him duck a hard question. Intrigued, I spent long hours talking to people who know Husar and his church.

I sat down with Husar again last week in Rome, where he is taking part in the Synod of Bishops. We spent part of a hot afternoon sitting in a park in front of the Governatorato, the civil administration of the Vatican city-state, talking about ecumenism, collegiality, and the experience of his people in the twentieth century. I came away freshly convinced that Husar should be on papal short lists.

He was born in 1933 in L’viv, in western Ukraine. His family fled to the United States in 1944, seeking refuge both from the Nazis and the Soviets. He studied at Catholic University and at Fordham, obtaining a doctorate in theology at the Urbanian University in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1958 in Stamford, Connecticut, for the Ukrainian diaspora. In 1973 he entered a Studite monastery in Italy.

The legendary Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, exiled head of the Ukrainian Catholics, ordained Husar a bishop in a secret ceremony in 1977. Rome, fearful of upsetting Paul VI’s Ostpolitik, a policy of outreach to the Soviets, refused to acknowledge the ordination since it would have angered the Russian Orthodox. Hence Husar spent more than a decade with all the burdens of being a bishop but none of the privileges. 

After the collapse of communism, the Ukrainian Catholics came out of the catacombs. In 1996, Husar became an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Ivan Lubachivsky, and in 2000 succeeded him as head of the church.

This experience has inoculated Husar against obsession with ecclesiastical honors, since he knows that often the most faithful servants are the least decorated. He never walks around in ecclesiastical finery if he can help it; often he wears a gray shirt and a pair of suspenders that would look more at home in a general store or a barber’s shop than a chancery.

Husar is refreshingly candid. I asked him about the current state of relations between the Catholic church and the Orthodox. No project has been more ballyhooed in recent years of John Paul’s pontificate. 

Herewith Husar’s sober diagnosis: “The situation does not look very good,” he said. “To my mind, there is no real desire for unity, even on our side to some extent.” 

Husar explained that the Catholic church remains unwilling to adopt the structural reforms, above all in favor of local autonomy, necessary for reunion to be a realistic option.

As for the Orthodox, Husar said that a Bolshevik-era psychology of fear and suspicion make it impossible to trust anybody.

“When we look at these people today, they are good people, and they wish good for themselves and their children,” Husar said. “But they have been so maltreated by that system that they are victims of it. Before we can talk about unity, this generation has to die out. It is a sad truth, but it is the fact.”

When’s the last time you heard that kind of hard-nosed assessment, in public, from a church leader?

Given his identity as an Eastern Catholic, Husar feels the case for collegiality and decentralization in his bones.

“I come from a priestly family, and I remember that my grandfather had to write to Rome to ask permission to grow a beard,” Husar said. “Really, I’m not joking. This sort of thing is ridiculous and must be reformed.”

An example from the present: Husar’s synod elected an auxiliary bishop almost two years ago, and they are still waiting for confirmation from Rome.

“This does not assure the quality of candidates, it simply creates another layer of bureaucracy,” he said. “We being on the spot, knowing the person first-hand, can judge much better.” 

Husar appreciates the need for a papal office. He pointed to the Orthodox world, where the lack of such a center of unity produces absurd disagreements. Constantinople and Moscow, for example, have excommunicated one another over control of Estonia.

“But daily life consists of many, many things that have nothing to do directly with faith and morals,” he said. “I am very much in favor of local synods and bishops conferences with the power to legislate for the local church. Who can legislate for the whole world? How can you come up with something realistic for everybody? It doesn’t work that way.”

Given the way last May’s consistory, and this October’s synod, have identified collegiality as a pressing reform awaiting a new pontificate, Husar’s vision could prove attractive to lots of folks.

From the point of view of conventional wisdom, there are three objections to Husar’s candidacy. First, he represents Eastern Europe, and after John Paul many believe that region of the world will have to wait a few generations to produce another pope. Second, he is an American citizen, and observers believe it would be diplomatically impossible to elect a superpower pontiff. Some would suspect Vatican policy was being crafted by the CIA. Third, the pope is supposed to be the Patriarch of the West, and it would be theologically odd for that office to be held by someone from an Eastern rite.

But these objections could easily be converted into positives. The first two point to Husar as a bridge between East and West; the third suggests he could be a symbol of the full catholicity of the church, of its unity in diversity.

Certainly Husar is no theological titan like Martini or Ratzinger, nor is he a seasoned curial diplomat like Re. But he is nobody’s fool, he is a proven pastor, and he has a heart of gold. His grin, his self-effacing wit, his roly-poly frame and bushy beard all would make him a media star, a symbol of a less imperial and more human church.

When I last spoke to Husar, I told him I was planning to tip him as a papabile. He smiled and joked: “Have pity on this old man.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t want the job, which is all the more reason to give him a look.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2001 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280