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"Pope John Paul II is reportedly poised to announce his handpicked successor: Hollywood hunk Mel Gibson!

The devoutly religious The Passion of the Christ director has the charisma, commitment and strength of character needed to steer the Catholic Church through its current crisis and "lead it into the 21st century," the ailing 83- year-old pontiff is said to have told a small group of cardinals on March 21.

"His Holiness is not impressed with the caliber of those who would normally be in line to succeed him," reveals a highranking Vatican insider.

"He considers them weak and is angered at how they've let scandal destroy the good name of the church.

"In his view, Mel -- a robustly heterosexual father of six and a quintessential man's man -- is exactly what's needed to restore the image of the priesthood.

"The pope believes that under Mel, archbishops wouldn't dare to protect pedophile priests. They'd be too terrified that the 'Road Warrior' would whale the tar out of them."

Until he came out with the The Passion , few people were aware of the star's deep religious faith. In all the publicity surrounding the film, it came out that Gibson favors a highly orthodox brand of Catholicism and attends one of the few churches that still says mass in Latin.

"His thinking is right in line with the pope's" says the insider.

The hit Bible flick has helped to reverse the fortune of the church, which had taken a beating over the past few years due to child-sex scandals.

"The church was hemorrhaging parishioners," the insider says. "Mel turned that around. Attendance is up; donations are up.

"The pope is impressed and grateful. He calls Gibson 'Miracle Mel.' He told us, 'Miracle Mel is a lethal weapon against Satan.' "

The revered spiritual leader is reportedly set to formally announce his bold selection in two months. Officially, a new pope is elected by cardinals -- and rumors are already flying of a "Stop Mel" campaign brewing among jealous church officials who feel they've been passed over.

"But practically speaking, when a popular pope makes his wishes so explicit, it will be hard to overrule him without igniting an uprising by lay people," says The Rev. Fredo Bianchi, an expert on ecclesiastical law.

He adds that there's no rule requiring a new pope to have formal religious training. "John Paul II could ordain Mel right now and he'll be a priest."

Would one of the most powerful men in Hollywood leave his glamorous world behind to shoulder such a burden?

Quite possibly, industry insiders say. "At 48, with his looks fading fast, Mel's only future in motion pictures is in character parts or behind the camera," explains entertainment writer Jill Workburn of Los Angeles. "He might see this as a challenge, just as Arnold took the bold step of running for governor."

The pontiff reportedly plans to make the actor/director an offer he can't refuse -- sweetening the deal by giving Mel dispensation to enter the priesthood although married, much like Anglican priests who jump ship to Catholicism.

Reveals the Vatican insider: "He's drafted a letter that tells Mel flat-out, 'The Holy Mother Church needs you, my son -- only you can save her.'

"I expect Mel will be very humbled by such an offer and he'll accept."

(Copyright Weekly World News..... a name you can trust.)