The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Will the next pope end another white monopoly'

The spectacle of George W. Bush kneeling at Pope John Paul II's bier recalls another temporal ruler, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, on his knees while Pope Adrian IV placed his slippered foot on the emperor's neck and then made him hold the stirrup while he mounted his horse. But Adrian's political clout was nothing compared to John Paul II's demonstration during the Cold War that papal power surpassed that of the military divisions that Stalin mocked.

Yet, despite television images of millions of pilgrims and mourners (though not all grieving), his pontificate was far from robust, which is why the 117 electors of the College of Cardinals could do worse than look for a successor in Asia, Africa or Latin America. Far from being a concession to the Third World, a black, brown or yellow Vicar of Christ would acknowledge where the future lies. By underlining the catholicity of a Church that Islam has overtaken as the world's most popular religion, such a tribute to the late pope's universalism might also divert attention from scandals, controversies and shrinking congregations throughout the Western world.

This pragmatic prescription for revival may not appeal to devout Catholics. They will probably retort that the choice of an heir to St Peter's throne reflects only God's will with no thought of earthly benefits. That is nonsense, of course, for the papacy ' and John Paul II's more than any other ' has always thrived on its worldly commitments.

Way back in 1953, when the first Indian prince of the Church, Valerian, Cardinal Gracias, visited St Xavier's College, I asked a priest if Gracias could ever become pope. I had in mind not only the cardinal's pioneering position but the legend of St Thomas the Apostle landing at Cranganore in 52 AD, making the Malabar coast the cradle of Christianity in Asia. The Jesuit conceded that there was no ecclesiastical objection to an Asian head of the Holy See. The arguments he cited against it happening were entirely secular. The pope ruled an Italian state. He was a public figure in Italy where he interacted with important European institutions, like governments and the powerful Society of Jesus. He controlled a vast fortune, presided over a College of Cardinals that derived in some ways from the Roman Senate, and was Bishop of Rome with local priestly functions.

No non-Italian had been elected since 1523. Few Germans made it because the Vatican was often at loggerheads with the Holy Roman Empire. One reason why only one Englishman ever wore the triple crown was that for all its global empire, Britain mattered little in the architecture of continental power. Acknowledging the dominant ethic, the few non-Italian popes tactfully chose Italian-sounding names.

Karol Wojtyla's elevation in 1978 represented the triumph of ideology over race. His mandate made saving souls for Christianity synonymous with rescuing countries from communism. History will pronounce on his contribution to the rise of Lech Walesa and Solidarity, to Poland's rejection of communism and to rolling back what was called the Iron Curtain. The West could not have fielded a more urbane, sophisticated and skilful crusader than the man who had confronted with courage, dignity and discretion his country's Nazi and Soviet occupiers.

His mission was as relevant to non-Christians as to Christians, to Afro-Asians as to Europeans. Indeed, it seemed especially sensitive to developing countries when he celebrated history's largest ever mass in Manila, established a Congolese church in Rome, and grieved for Uganda's dead, regardless of religion, as the 'ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs'. Preaching the 'civilization of love' in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he was as affable with Jewish as with Palestinian leaders.

No other pope denounced Western materialism as the 'culture of death', reached out as diligently to the world's suffering or made human rights the central issue of his preaching. The underlying strategy recalled George Canning, the 19th-century British prime minister, who 'called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old' by turning his back on decadent Spain and recognizing Spanish colonies like Mexico, Peru and Chile as independent nations. Similarly, the pope nursed in the Third World the Catholicism that was languishing in the First, where traditional bastions like France and Ireland are lapsing into apostasy.

Many reasons ' paedophilia charges that have discredited the clergy in several centres, rigid views on divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexuality and female ordination, inroads by boisterous Pentecostalism and the appeal of Liberation Theology ' are advanced for this decline. But no individual cause is more important than the growing indifference to religion in the West which explains only sparse scatterings of grey heads in so many European pews.

As John Paul II sought other fields to sow, Bharatiya Janata Party zealots ' it takes one to know another, as they say ' accused him of proselytizing during his 1986 visit to India. It was a facile charge, for conversion is a priest's job. A leopard might as well be blamed for its spots. It was in Africa that he blazed a trail, freeing Catholics from the straitjacket of Latin so that they could worship with song and dance, clapping and drums. With this absorption of tribal mores, Africa's Catholic population soared from 9 to 50 per cent and stands today at 150 million. Signal of what may lie ahead, visiting African priests keep alive churches in France that would otherwise be altogether deserted.

Brazil, with 75 per cent of its 180 million people professing Catholicism, is another focus. In fact, two-thirds of the world's Catholics are in developing countries, represented in the highest echelon by some 18 Asian cardinals, 17 from Latin America and 10 Africans. John Paul II recognized the logic of numbers by being relentlessly on the move, making 104 trips to 129 countries, shaking hands with more than 1,500 heads of state or government, and covering more than half a million miles. He also understood that the medium is the message, that the pope has to be photogenic, inspiring and accessible. 'If it doesn't happen on television, it doesn't happen,' he said famously. His 'popemobile', which may have inspired Lal Krishna Advani's rath, guaranteed instant publicity for his global recruiting missions.

Believers alone can determine the spiritual impact of his 26-year reign. But the spiritual and temporal overlapped as some accused him of ruling 1.1 billion Catholics with an iron hand, easing out liberal prelates and dashing hopes aroused by the Second Vatican Council. He is said to have reversed the legacy of both Pope John XIII who wanted to 'throw open the windows of the church' and Pope John Paul I who congratulated the parents of the world's first test-tube baby. The ban on using condoms may have condoned the spread of AIDS.

Ironically, conservatism finds an echo in parts of the Third World where converts welcome papal activism in liquidating communism and the Soviet bloc and take a more lenient view of scandals over money or sex in theological institutions. Indifferent to Pope Pius XII's equivocal attitude to the Holocaust, they are more concerned about whether another European will feel as deeply for the underprivileged as John Paul II did. Only someone from the lands he held so dear may be best qualified to carry out his secular work. No one mentions colour, but a historic break with 2,000 years of orthodoxy would dramatically end another white monopoly.

The end of history means that the Vatican's political battlefield has shrunk to China. The next pope might, of course, follow Bush's lead and embrace the cause of democracy and the war on terror. Meanwhile, the main focus must return to religion, which is dying in the West. Not the most crusty Eurocentric elector can ignore that a Third World nomination might, therefore, save a hallowed First World institution. If not this time, then when the next vacancy occurs.

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