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Praying for a Third World pope
Publication Date : 01-03-2013
Is a Third World pope not long overdue? Wishful thinking for a Philippine pope has sidelined our country from this critical debate. A resounding “yes” from Asia’s Catholic bastion must be heard all the way to the Sistine Chapel. The Gospel ends with Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations,” and Filipinos perennially overlook that they are the third largest Catholic nation (after Brazilians and Mexicans).
The pope fixed in my mind is John Paul II, whose kindly, smiling face radiated from countless posters in my childhood. He moved me to join the crowds of teenagers awaiting a glimpse of his Popemobile during World Youth Day Manila, crowds that set a world record in 1995.
John Paul II was far from a distant figure, this pope who globe-trotted among Catholic communities, not to mention mosques and non-Catholic churches. Through him, the Catholic faith permeated the temporal world. He gave the Church a sense of mission as he stood decisively against apartheid in South Africa, Latin American dictatorships and Soviet communism, particularly in his beloved Poland. John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, unfortunately, was more noted for his choice of ecclesiastical garments.
I identified with John Paul II because he was Polish. There was something compelling to a young Filipino in the seminarian who hid Polish Jews from German troops during World War II and walked a damaged postwar Kraków. His memories of Nazi-occupied Poland lent a sense of urgency when he spoke against poverty in lands as distant as Haiti. His background was integral to how his mere presence became a force for moral change in the developing world.
John Paul II surely understood the Philippine Church’s role at Edsa. He surely understood the lot of overseas Filipino workers, with Polish migrant workers ubiquitous in Europe. He was, surely, no armchair theologian.
I am hoping for a new pope I can identify with even more strongly. So is every flourishing young Church, judging from the reports from Accra to São Paulo. Africa is rooting for Peter Turkson, the son of a miner who once climbed coconut trees and worked in a slaughterhouse in an African countryside. Latin America, home to 41 per cent of the Catholics in the world, is rooting for Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri and Brazil’s Odilo Pedro Scherer.
Over 68 per cent of Catholics are now in Latin America, Africa and Asia. They are distant from Europe in geography and, more importantly, in economics, culture and political reality.
The demographics are hardly reflected in the cardinal electors: 28 Italians, 33 other Europeans, 14 North Americans, 19 Latin Americans, 11 Africans and 11 Asians. The 52 per cent of European electors represent only 24 per cent of Catholics; North America, 12 per cent versus 7 per cent; Latin America, 16 per cent versus 41 per cent; Africa, 9 per cent versus 15 per cent, and Asia, 9 per cent versus 12 per cent. The centres of gravity of global economy and culture are shifting, and the Roman Catholic Church will likewise have to be less Roman to reenergise itself.
Choosing a Third World pope in lieu of yet another elderly Italian is precisely the change the modern Church needs. Consider, for example, how liberation theology has become the trademark of Ateneo Jesuit education, with its catchphrase “preferential option for the poor” and required immersion in poor communities. This moral grounding has served decades of Filipino leaders well, all the way to our current President.
This moral grounding is even more passionately embraced in Latin America, from where it reached us. It is painfully obvious why the idea that faith must uplift human dignity from poverty and inequality resonates in Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and the rest of Latin America. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), however, restrained this philosophy, fearing uncritical Marxist colour and inadvertent condonation of violence (as did John Paul II). There is a pressing need to reflect the Third World experience in the Church’s every facet, from doctrine to the format of the Mass.
Filipinos inexplicably overlook that we are the world’s third largest Catholic population, to the point that Ghana’s fervent but much smaller community has been thrust more visibly onto the world stage. Filipinos too easily forget not just our links to the greater Catholic world, but also our powerful colonial affinity with Latin America. Perhaps Catholicism has become invisible to us in its ubiquity.
It is time for us to assert our place in the greater Catholic world and help forge the destiny our brethren in the developing world are now seeking to build. The Philippine Church has not shied from politics in recent times, and our bishops must actively represent us in what can be the modern Catholic Church’s turning point.
Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle has been touted as the dark horse, a prince of the Church who would be the perfect young, charismatic papabile but for the smaller Catholic population in Asia. One day, an Asian pope will arise as a matter of right and destiny. Filipinos should consider that our man Chito’s day will come sooner if a Third World pope opens Church philosophy to Third World experience, invigorates faith with Third World emotion, canonises more Third World saints, and passes around more Third World red hats.
Ultimately, Filipinos need to fix one question firmly in mind: If Jesus was Asian, then why not the pope?
Oscar Franklin Tan teaches constitutional law at the University of the East. He was one of the last students of the Ateneo’s liberation theology professor, Fr. Vitaliano “George” Gorospe, SJ, who passed away in January 2002.