Could the new Pope come from outside Europe?
Religion writer Barney Zwartz looks at a few of the top contenders outside of Europe to be considered for the head of the Catholic church.PT0M0S 620 349
I'm still getting over the shock of the Vatican's announcement of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. The last time a Pope resigned was in 1294 when the 85-year-old gentle and saintly Pope Celestine V, after a six-month papacy, resigned under pressure from the deplorable, insatiably acquisitive and cruel Cardinal Benedetto Caetani. Caetani subsequently became Celestine's successor as Pope Boniface VIII. In other words it is 719 years since anything like a papal resignation has occurred, which makes it almost unprecedented.
That's why it is so important: it sets a new precedent. Now popes don't have to feel they are stuck in office for life, batting it out to the bitter end. It lessens the chance that the church will get caught with a senile or incapacitated Pope or a comatose one on life-support with no one able to make the decision to turn off the machine. It means that once a Pope realises that the job is beyond him he can retire and make way for a younger person. It frees the papacy from the incubus of history.
It also means that a slightly younger person can be elected. The average age of recent popes at election was between 65 and the early 70s. Sure, John Paul II was a sprightly 58, but John XXIII was 77 and Benedict himself was 78.
'March will be an interesting month in Catholicism.' Photo: Getty Images
So what happens after Benedict retires at 8pm on February 28? He'll retire to a former nunnery within the Vatican, while the government of the church will be handed over to the College of Cardinals - the 120 men who will elect his successor. They will gather in Rome to sort out the profile of the kind of Pope they want to succeed Benedict XVI. The interregnum period normally lasts from two to three weeks, so they will probably enter the conclave, or the meeting in which they elect the Pope, around March 20.
Who will emerge from this process as Pope? That will depend on the cardinals' analysis during the interregnum and the actual horse-trading that will go on in the conclave itself.
There will be some who want to make sure that nothing changes from the priorities of Benedict XVI and John Paul II before him. They will want to elect an Italian and their most likely candidate will be Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan or Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican.
But Scola is very much a clone of Benedict XVI with the same attitudes and intellectual background and Ravasi is too much of an ''intellectual'' to suit the more down-to-earth cardinals. While Scola has done good work in dialogue with Muslims, both of them are still very Eurocentric in their attitudes.
So I believe that the time might have arrived for a non-European to be elected. The reason for this is some of the cardinals may be persuaded that the real questions facing the church are the social, economic and political marginalisation of the poor, the kinds of issues faced by the developing world in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Forty-two of the 120 cardinal electors come from these three regions and their influence will be considerable in the conclave.
The concerns of developing countries are about justice and equity for their people, the degradation of the environment, AIDS, population growth, the position of women in tribal and patriarchal cultures. Also of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, the majority come from developing countries. Perhaps their time has come.
So, in my view, the possibility of the election of cardinals like Peter Turkson, from Ghana and now in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, or Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, or even the young (at 55) Luis Tagle, of Manila, Philippines, must be taken as serious possibilities.
Interestingly both Turkson and Rodriguez Maradiaga were partly educated in the United States and have a good knowledge of the developed world and the English language as well as their own. Tagle would be one of the very few moderately progressive cardinals in the College.
Nevertheless, this conclave will be very hard to predict. A rather large group of cardinals are simply ''company men''. They are straightforward, pastorally caring men who are loyal to the church and will normally go along with the majority in the conclave. They will be the ones who eventually make up the two-thirds majority necessary to get elected as Pope.
March will be an interesting month in Catholicism.
Vatican watcher Paul Collins is a historian and broadcaster.