Could the next pope be from Asia?

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 24, 2013 - 19:52
  • Updated : Feb 24, 2013 - 19:52
Vatican watchers are abuzz about who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI when he officially steps down at 8:00 p.m. on Feb. 28, including the very real possibility that a cardinal from outside Europe could lead the Roman Catholic Church for the first time ever.

Cynics might sneer that such a prospect is an impossibility. But if there is one place where miracles are believed to be possible, it is the Catholic Church.

Apostolic Nuncio to Korea Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla, the Holy See’s chief diplomatic representative here, said it did not matter either way and dismissed such talk as “just speculation.” Padilla, a 40-year career diplomat for the Holy See, comes from the Philippines.

“(The Cardinal electors) will have a study on the needs of the church and on the person who will be most qualified. That is why we have the elections,” Padilla said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See’s official diplomatic mission in Korea. “Everything else is speculation.”
Apostolic Nuncio to Korea Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla, the Holy See’s chief diplomatic representative here, gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul, Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)

Padilla is perhaps very alone in not entering into the fray of speculation swirling around Vatican City about the man ― there are no women cardinals ― who the College of Cardinals will elect to don the adorned mitre.

The selection process is also under pressure by scheduling constraints, as Catholic leaders aim to select a new pontiff ahead of the church festivities of Holy Week, which start on Palm Sunday, March 24, and culminate on Easter morning, March 31.

That means they will likely move the date of the conclave up to as early as March 10. Regardless of when the conclave convenes, however, who the 117 cardinal electors will elect is anyone’s guess.

“There is a saying in Rome: (The cardinal) who enters the conclave as a favorite leaves the conclave still as cardinal,” said the 71-year-old who is recovering from kidney surgery he underwent in early February.

“That means anything can happen. That is, we have not only the human element involved, but also the Holy Spirit and prayers.

“There are many things that can happen in the hearts and minds of the electors. This is not a political election. It is rather an election among cardinals who are concerned of their duty to elect the best person as pope,” he said.

The pontiff is leader of one of the largest and oldest religious institutions in the world with more than 1.5 billion members. The church teaches that the pope is the successor of Saint Peter, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.

That is a tough act to follow, but one cardinal from Asia is getting a considerable amount of media attention as a possible favorite: Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle, archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. Tagle appears to have the best chances among the nine other cardinals in Asia eligible to be elected, including five in India and one each in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Tagle reportedly impressed other cardinals when, not yet a cardinal himself, he said at a doctrinal council meeting last October that the Church should listen more to the public and admit its mistakes. He was made a cardinal by Benedict the following month.

Tagle, at 55, is the second-youngest prelate to be named to the College of Cardinals, and is the most popular cardinal on Facebook. His homilies are among the most searched for on Youtube.

His youth, energy and charisma could be valuable assets to a church hierarchy that is sometimes criticized as out of touch with today’s Catholic laity. Today, about two-thirds of church members live in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Tagle’s election as the first Asian pope would be hugely popular among the more than 70,000 mostly Catholic Filipinos living and working here in Korea, many of whom attend mass at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in the Hyehwa-dong neighborhood of Seoul. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has already begun campaigning for him.

Archbishop Padilla for his part knows something about breaking down racial barriers. Before his current posting, Padilla served as apostolic nuncio in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Costa Rica. He was the first Filipino appointed as nuncio to Korea when he took up his posting here in July 2008, but he rejects speculating about a possible Asian successor.

“We will leave it to the cardinals,” he said. “They will unite in two weeks time to think about what they should vote for, so I do not like to anticipate this.”

One thing we can expect is that the cardinal electors will vote for the leader of an institution that is as much a head of state as a religious head.

“There are three realities in the Vatican. First, there is the Catholic Church. Then you have the Holy See which is the government of the pope. Last you have the State of the Vatican City,” he said, adding that all three aspects are related but distinct from the pontiff as the head of state. The Catholic Church as the Holy See has diplomatic representation in countries around the world, including Korea. The Holy See even has observer status at the United Nations and diplomatic relations with some 180 sovereign nations.

By Philip Iglauer (