Cardinal Mario Grech is being mentioned among a number of cardinals who stand a chance of succeeding Pope Francis at the next conclave.

Concern has been mounting over the state of the current pope's health after he was forced to cancel plans because of a knee problem. The 85-year-old has also publicly appeared in a wheelchair for the first time.

In an analysis, The Times of London says the succession will be a battle between two factions as conservatives who loathe Francis’s 'mercy-before-dogma' style square off against his more liberal fans who applaud his overtures to gay Catholics and divorcees.

What is not clear is if Francis will serve as pope until he dies or choose to retire like his predecessor, few believe he would retire while Benedict is still alive to avoid two retired popes looking over the shoulder of the next pontiff, the paper says.

It says Francis’s opponents have a candidate to succeed him in Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, a canon law expert seen as a man of rules with none of Francis’s impulsive behaviour, according to Luis Badilla, the editor of the Catholic website Il Sismografo.

John Allen, editor of the Catholic news site Crux, added the Dutch cardinal Wim Eijk and the Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet to the list of conservative candidates.

“Malta’s Mario Grech is also interesting since he had a conservative reputation but became pro-Francis, although some conservatives may hope he would revert to form if elected Pope,” he said.

Grech, 65, is secretary-general of the synod of bishops. The former bishop of Gozo was named cardinal in 2020.

At the time, Catholic media said his appointment reflected his support for the Pope's apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which drew concerns by conservatives.

The pope had called for more mercy and inclusion in the church, all of which was also applicable to LGBT issues.

In a letter read in all churches the bishops of Malta and Gozo had explained that “this message is also relevant to the couples and families who find themselves in complex situations, especially those involving separated or divorced persons who have entered a new union. Although they may have “lost” their first marriage, some of these persons have not “lost” their hope in Jesus. Some of these earnestly desire to live in harmony with God and with the Church, so much so, that they are asking us what they can do in order to be able to celebrate the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

Candidates favoured by the Francis camp include Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s current secretary of state, and the Filipino cardinal Luis Tagle, whose main handicap is his age since he is seen as young at 64, although that is just one year younger than Grech. 

The newspaper quotes Allen warning that neither side has the backing to secure the two-thirds majority needed to get a pope of their liking elected at the next conclave.

A total of 117 cardinals aged under 80 are eligible to vote, 67 were appointed by Francis, 38 by Benedict and 12 by Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II.

The world’s most exclusive magazine, Cardinalis, which is mailed free to cardinals has supported Italy’s Matteo Zuppi as a compromise candidate. He is close to Francis but has nevertheless allowed the Latin Mass to continue in his Bologna archdiocese.

A popular cardinal who appeared on an Italian chat show in 2019 and promised to carry on riding his bike in Bologna after being made a cardinal that year, Zuppi has worked in Africa and helped to broker the end of a civil war in Mozambique in the early 1990s, the newspaper says.  

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