VATICAN CITY – Catholics in Asia and other parts of the world where the Roman Catholic Church is growing fast hope to see the cardinals choose an Asian pope for the first time in history at their meeting to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI that began Tuesday.
They argue that the choice of the new pope should reflect the changing face of the Catholic Church, which is expanding rapidly in Asia, Africa and Latin America yet aging fast and shrinking in Europe, its one-time stronghold.
Despite the decline in church attendance in the developed world, when the 115 cardinals solemnly walked into the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to begin the process of selecting a new pope, two-thirds were from Europe and North America.
The odds are stacked against Asia. Not only does it only have just nine representatives among the cardinals eligible to vote, but few move in the inner circles of the Vatican, or have held positions within its apparatus.
Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle is carrying the hopes of Asia and those of his country’s 80 million Catholics.
The archbishop of Manila, who developed a taste for braised chicken feet while visiting the poor in the megacity’s teeming slums, would be a bold choice as he is just 55 — three years younger than Pope John Paul II was when he was elected in 1978.
Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency, said Asia wants to challenge the powerful vested interests in the Vatican.
“The Asian churches want more powers. They say that Vatican diplomacy does not take into account local sensibilities,” he said. “The important thing about Tagle is that he is inside the Catholic tradition but can adapt it to modern times. That would make him a good successor (to Benedict).”
India supplies five of the nine Asian cardinals in the conclave even though Catholics in India amount to less than 2 percent of the population in the overwhelmingly Hindu nation.
But with 17 million Catholics in India, only the Philippines has more among Asian nations.
Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, has expressed serious doubts that an Asian will be elected pope but insists that a candidate’s birthplace should not be the determining factor in the cardinals’ thinking.
“For me it’s not important what continent he comes from,” he told the Catholic News Service.
“We want a person who is most suitable for this assignment and most suitable for the very great responsibility, the one to whom the Holy Spirit guides us.”
Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is considered another long shot. The traditionalist was appointed by Benedict to oversee the church’s liturgical practices in 2005, having previously served as papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Indonesia and East Timor.
Should the cardinals decide that the time has come for an Asian pope, Ranjith, 65, could find his age and his ideological convictions work in his favor over Tagle, who is a decade younger.