‘Hope’ for Church: Third World pope

Paterno Esmaquel II
From the ground, there's a clamor for a pope 'in touch with the Third World'

MANILA, Philippines – Music filled the air, and laughter erupted in a room that was a melting pot of different cultures but one religion.

It was the day after Pope Benedict XVI, in a historic move, quit the papacy. But life went on at the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI) in Quezon City, with Catholics from mostly non-European continents cheering and dancing at a birthday party.

This is the Church that the Pope will leave as leader – most alive, even joyous in places outside Europe, such as Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania, which posted the highest growth rates in 2012.

Despite this, it is a Church led only by Europeans for centuries. This year, most of the potential papal contenders – the cardinals – also come from Europe, amid its steady decline in Church membership.

At EAPI, we meet an Indian priest, an American nun, and a layman from Papua New Guinea, who have all partied and lived with Catholics from developing countries. For the papal elections called the conclave, this is their only wish: a non-European pontiff. Two of them even vouch for Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.

“A Eurocentric papacy threatens the Church because the Church has moved on. We are a global Church,” said Sr Clare Lentz, an American nun.

'GLOBAL CHURCH.' Indian priest Fr Michael Ignatius, American nun Sr Clare Lentz, and Papua New Guinea layman George Isoaimo (left to right) want a non-European pope.

Lentz has a strong streak of liberation theology, a movement born in Latin America that espouses social justice. She has lived in places like El Salvador, the site of a civil war that saw the murder of pro-poor priests, and has personally witnessed poverty in the Philippines.

In these poor countries, the American nun has met people with “deep, absolute faith,” and intimate relationships. “And those two things are all they have,” said Lentz, who contrasted these places with Europe, which, in 2012, was the only continent with a decrease in Church membership.

“Where the hope is coming from, is the southern hemisphere. It’s coming from Asia, it’s coming from Africa. Not Europe, and certainly not the United States,” Lentz said.

She said the Church needs a pope “in touch, first of all, with the Third World.”

Data from the Vatican show that in 2012, the biggest increase in Catholics came from Africa, with a 0.21% rise. America followed it with 0.07%, Asia with 0.06%, and Oceania with 0.03%. In contrast, the only negative figure came from Europe, with a -0.01% decrease in membership.

Those who will vote for the next pope, despite this, mostly come from Europe. Tagle is among 11 Asian cardinals in the 117-member conclave, comprising a measly 9.4%.

EUROCENTRIC CHURCH? For over 2,000 years, mostly Europeans, including Pope Benedict XVI, have led the Catholic Church. AFP Photo/Tiziana Fabi

An African frontrunner for the papacy, Peter Cardinal Turkson, however said choosing a pope is not about statistics – “that the pope should come from where the Church is growing fastest, and where the Church is growing.”

“At the end of the day, the papacy is not a question of representation,” Turkson told BBC. “Leadership of the Church also requires that people know about the Church… so a certain amount of deep knowledge of the Church is also necessary for the leadership of the Church.”

‘Jesus is Asian’

Still, Fr Michael Ignatius, an Indian priest for 25 years, wants an Asian pope because “now, Christianity is fully in Asia.” With the diversity of cultures and religions, “we need a person… who can culturally, religiously understand the whole Church in Asia.”

“Given a chance, how will an Asian guide the Church, and see? And Jesus was an Asian, not a European, for that matter,” Ignatius said. (Watch more in the video report below.)

Ignatius laments his country “is not that represented in the universal Church.”

Vatican statistics show India has 5 cardinal electors for the conclave in March – the highest number of cardinal electors from Asian countries, but low compared to countries like Italy with 28, and the United States with 11.

“Our Indian-ness is something different from European thinking. Not that a European cannot understand; no, not that. An Asian can better understand than a European understanding the Asian Church today,” Ignatius explained.

George Isoaimo, a layman from Papua New Guinea, simply wants a pope “who is more open.”

“For the young people or the group that I’m with, we feel that the Church is too passive, not open. What I mean by ‘too passive’ is, they quickly close themselves. I believe that if the Church is more open and there is more dialogue, with globalization taking place, the Church won’t be the one to embrace people to come to her… I think the people will be the ones to embrace the Church,” he explained.

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For both Lentz and Ignatius, Tagle is the best candidate for the papacy.

“I would like Archbishop Cardinal Tagle to be the new pope,” said Lentz, who attended Tagle’s installation as archbishop, and describes him as a “down-to-earth, simple man.”

“I love Fr Tagle,” she said.

“And he’s going to all of those universities, and he’s having open meetings with the students, with Muslims, with everybody that wants to come. And he asks them, ‘What do you think?’ What a different way to approach the people of God! ‘What do you think?’ Not saying, ‘This is what the Church believes.’ He listens, he’s a listening person. And that’s where it all begins,” Lentz explained.

POTENTIAL SUCCESSOR. Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle joins 116 other prelates who will elect – among themselves – the next pope. Teary eyed, Tagle became a cardinal in November 2012. File photo from AFP

Ignatius’ eyes glowed when he spoke of the Manila archbishop.

“He’s an Asian. As an Asian, I am so connected to him. Not only because of that. Whoever talked about this person, talked so highly about his simplicity, the capacity to see the faith. A kind of balanced personality to guide the Church,” Ignatius said.

Isoaimo, for his part, doesn’t exactly prefer an Asian – but “not really a European.”

“If that’s the will of the Holy Spirit, then a European. But if they get maybe an Asian… the Asian may have a different concept or different approach… a European may be too passive,” Isoaimo said.

The conclave in March, however, is far from a birthday party at EAPI, which welcomes almost anyone, including this writer, and hears loudly the voices from the developing world.

It is a closed-door meeting – inspired by the Holy Spirit according to Catholics, but still, joined by a chosen 117. And cardinals from Europe dominate it. – Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.