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Indian votes in next choice

Feb. 11: Several cardinals from India are expected to be in the papal college that will pick the next pontiff of 1.2 billion Catholics, half of whom live in the global south at a time bookmakers are speculating on the first “Black Pope”.

The process of electing a new Pope rests with the Sacred College of Cardinals, which consists of all cardinals aged below 80.

Seven cardinals are from India: Telesphore P. Toppo of Ranchi, Simon I. Pimenta, Ivan Dias, Oswald Gracias (all Mumbai), George Alencherry of Ernakulam (Kerala), Baselios Cleemis Catholicos of Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) and Duraiswamy Simon Lourdusamy of Bangalore.

It is not clear how many cardinals will be eligible to vote — unofficial figures ranged from five to all seven. “We are in the process of counting the exact number,” said Fr Dominic Gomes, vicar-general and chancellor of the archdiocese of Calcutta.

The cardinal who lives closest to Calcutta, Cardinal Toppo of Ranchi, was preparing to welcome a high-ranking Vatican official, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, to Ranchi tomorrow when word of the papal resignation reached him.

“I am surprised at the sudden announcement by the Pope. Though the Canon Law contains provisions for the resignation by the Pope, who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, I never expected this to happen. There is no official communication from Rome and I have come to know of the developments from the Internet,” Toppo told The Telegraph.

“Things will begin to unfold only after February 28 when the present pontiff makes that rare move to step down. However, whenever a conclave is held, I will be invited to attend and cast my vote to elect a new Pope. As a cardinal, I am entitled to vote,” he added.

Thomas D’Souza, the archbishop of Calcutta, said: “The news has come as a surprise but I must say that this shows the greatness of the Pope, his faith, his humility and his courage.”

Pope Benedict’s announcement evoked disbelief in the Catholic Church in Kerala, which gained two cardinals — Cardinal Alencherry and Cadinal Cleemis — and sainthood for Sister Alphonsa during his tenure.

Pope Benedict had made his presence felt in Kerala for one more reason. In September 2006, the Pope was quoted as saying Saint Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, had evangelised Syria and Persia and gone on to western India from where Christianity reached south India. This was interpreted to mean that St Thomas travelled only till the western front, made up mostly of today’s Pakistan.

The statement had the effect of questioning the very roots of Christianity in India as, according to the Church, St Thomas had arrived in Kodungalloor in Kerala and spread the gospel.

After Church leaders drew the Vatican’s attention, the official website uploaded the Pope’s amended comments that read St Thomas himself had reached south India.

Church leaders today spoke of their admiration for Pope Benedict.

“We are shocked by his decision to step down. But he is setting history,” said Paul Thelekkat, the spokesperson for the Syro Malabar Church. Pope Benedict, he recalled was “very friendly”' to the Syro Malabar Church and was instrumental in establishing the diocese of Delhi. “It was during his tenure that Sister Alphonsa was elevated as a saint,” he pointed out.

Cardinal George Alenchery, who was elevated in February last year, said: “Pope Benedict had given hints of his decision almost two years ago and had said that he would not continue if his health was bad. It seems he was preparing the Church for this. Being a professor of theology, the Pope used to meet his students in Vatican every year. Last year, he told the gathering that he wasn't sure if he would meet them again this year. This was a likely hint of what he was planning to do.”

Stepehen Alathara, the spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council, said: “Pope Benedict had taken care to fill the vacancies of all the 120 cardinals who would select the next Pope. It is an honour for us that two Cardinals from Kerala will be among those who choose the next Pope.”