Alongside the spiritual/theological/doctrinal questions and the overall direction of the Church as we slide deeper into the 21st century is (surprise) the question of nationality. The Roman Catholic Church is an international organization with about 1.1 billion members scattered all over the globe. HQ may be in Rome but there is a fair amount of circulation of "middle management" - expatriate priests who are called from one country to serve parishes in another. When I was growing up in the U.S. my parish priest was Irish. In the church I attend today my local priest is French but my confessor is from Madagascar. My brother's church in California recently welcomed yet another priest from France (they have had several over the past few years). This is likely to become even more common in the future since some regions like Europe are seeing a decline in vocations while Africa, the Americas and Asia are seeing growth.
If you look at the raw numbers three of the top five Roman Catholic populations are in the Americas: Brazil, Mexico and the the United States. The Philippines comes in third place and the first European country (Italy) is in fifth place just ahead of France. And yet you might have noticed that popes tend to be European by origin. Pope John Paul II was, as we all know, Polish and the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is German but most popes in the recent past have come from Italy.
So what are the chances that the conclave will elect a pope from North or South America, Asia or Africa? That is one of the burning questions being discussed among the faithful all over the world in every country. The next pope will be elected by a conclave of 117 cardinals of which the majority are from Europe. What will they be looking for in a new pope? Here is a nice summary:
Each cardinal looks for three things. First, he looks for someone who would be a good pope, which means someone who agrees with the cardinal’s values and vision for the church.I don't disagree with the last but in an worldwide organization the global dimension matters a lot: global politics and the larger context of this multi-lingual, multi-national, (dare say it?) multi-cultural organization. Country of origin, linguistic skills, and the ability to cross cultures matters in this context. And will the cardinals take this into account? You bet they will.
Second, he looks for someone with whom he can have a good relationship. Ideally, he wants one of his cardinal friends as pope, someone who will listen to him. Personal relationships matter.
Third, he wants someone who will be well received in his home country, or at least someone who will not cause problems in the cardinal’s county. For example, U.S. cardinals would not want a pope who does not understand the sexual abuse crisis and says stupid things like “it is a creation of the media.” Nor do cardinals from countries with lots of Muslims want a pope who says stupid things about Islam. As Tip O’Neil said, “All politics is local.” This also applies to the Catholic Church.
An American pope? Recently there has been a very open discussion about what it would mean to have a pope from the United States and why some think it wouldn't be a good idea. Cardinal George Pell of Australia in this video was very frank about the implications of such an election:
This was followed by an interview with the American cardinal Donald Wuerl who seemed to concur that it would not be wise to have a pope from the U.S. because "I think the conventional wisdom, which I think is correct, is a pope from the superpower would probably have a lot going against him when he's trying to present a spiritual message to the rest of the world."
So if I follow this argument correctly they are basically saying that just by virtue of nationality and their connection to a "super-puissance" the American cardinals are out of the race even before it begins.
A South American Pope? What about a pope from South America? One candidate who is getting a lot of attention is Cardinal Leonardo Sandri from Argentina. He was born in Buenos Aires but his parents were Italian and he speaks 5 languages and is known for his skills as a diplomat. But spite of the large numbers of Catholics in Latin America that region does not have a lot of representation in the conclave (only 19 out of 117). So the election of a Latin American pope rests on the decision of the European cardinals to consider (or not) a non-European to the papacy and their choosing a Latin American over an African.
An African pope? Two solid candidates in the running according to the bookies: Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana and Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria. Cardinal Turkson seems more likely because he is younger but who knows? If the cardinals do choose an African it would be the first one in 1500 years - the last pope from that continent was Pope Gelasius (492-496).
All of the above (and so many more) are possibilities and but clearly some are more "papabile" than others. Nothing I've said above should give any of you the idea that country of origin is the primary consideration in the election but it is important and it appears to be a deal breaker in at least one case (the U.S.) and probably others as well.
Do I have a preference? Well, clearly I don't have a vote in this and honestly that doesn't bother me one whit. I'm simply not qualified to make that judgement and I'm perfectly OK leaving that burden (and what a burden it is) firmly in the hands of the conclave. There are so many different considerations that the cardinals must weigh that one can only hope that divine inspiration will heavily inform their votes.
But may I simply say that there are three qualities that I would like to see in the next Holy Father? The first is that the new pope be truly global - multi-lingual with deep experience and contacts with cultures outside of his own. The second is that hard to define quality (but you-know-it-when-you-see-it) called charisma - an inspirational leader with eloquence, persuasive power, and likability. The third is the power to heal - lot of open wounds right now in the Church and there is no hiding that fact.
As the conclave prepares to meet (and I believe it opens tomorrow) these are the things I hope and pray for in the soon to be elected 266th spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church.