KOCHI: The election of the first non-European Pope in nearly 1,300 years seems to be opening up chances for Cardinals from Asian and African continents to lead the Catholic Church in the future.

Pope Francis, the Church’s 266th pontiff and a successor to Benedict XVI, in a way symbolises the shift in focus of the church from Europe to Latin America, Asia and African continents. Even though his papal ascendancy is expected to bring change, the new pope is loyal to the Church doctrine and remains traditional to the core. A theological conservative, he is staunchly orthodox on issues of sexual morality and opposes same sex marriage and abortion. Though he is against liberation theology, which according to him is corrupted with Marxist ideology, Cardinal Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io) has special sympathy for the poor.

Pope Francis also has strong Italian roots. Born in Argentina to parents of Italian descent, he is a fluent speaker of Italian as well as German and Spanish. The 76-year-old from Buenos Aires is also the first from Latin America, home to about 41.3 per cent of the total Catholic population, as well as the first member of the Jesuit order to ascend to papacy.

Terming the election of Pope Francis from Latin America as a possible new resistance against globalisation and market-driven economy, Sebastian Paul, former MP and political commentator, said the conclave of Cardinals that elected the new pope might have realised the importance of reaching out to the people outside Europe, considering the crisis being faced by the order in European countries.

“In the near future, we can reasonably expect a pope from a third world country. Even the chances of a Malayali Cardinal leading the Roman Catholic Church cannot be ruled out. The new pope will also bring in more cardinals from third world countries. It would give a new direction to the Catholic Church and also help in rejuvenating it,” he said.

Out of the 115 cardinals in the conclave, 60 were from Europe, 19 from Latin America, 14 from North America, 11 from and 10 from Asia. Five among the Asians were Indian cardinals, including George Alencherry, Ivan Dias, Oswald Gracias, Telesphore Placidus Toppo, and Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal.

According to the figures compiled by the World Christian Base, Latin America accounts for 483 million Catholics. The proportion of Catholics living in Europe has declined, while Africa has seen a growth in the number of Catholics - from 45 million in 1970 to 176 million in 2012. Asia has also seen a growth in Catholicism and now represents almost 12 per cent of the total Catholic population in the world.

Explaining that Italy was monpolising papacy for years, Fr. Paul Thelakkat, spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Church, said the selection of the new pope may perhaps open up the chances of an Asian or an African coming at the helm of affairs of the Catholic Church in the future.

“We must also realize that this decision would have received the support of the 60 cardinals from Europe who had cast their votes at the secret conclave. Within Europe, there is a growing awareness on the catholicity of the Church — a realisation that Church belongs to all nationalities and all cultures,” he said.

Fr. Abraham Adapoor, senior Jesuit and noted writer, said the selection of the new pope emphasizes the universal character of the Catholic Church. “It is always meant for the entire world, a religion meant for humanity,” he said.

Stating that the future popes could represent Europe, Asia and Africa, Fr. Adapoor said the search for a pope is not limited to territorial representations. “The search is always for the best - a pope who can do the job well. The conclave always looks around for that person,” he said.

Fr. Jose Panthaplamthottiyil, Prior General of the Congregation of Carmalites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), said it was a good tradition to reach out to the people outside Europe and not to remain Europe-centric in the selection of the pope.

“There is an absolute possibility that cardinals from Asian and African countries would reach at the helm of affairs of the Catholic Church. But we should realise the fact that it is not limited to geographical boundaries. It does not make a difference, if the pope is from either Asia or Africa. The most vital aspect is that he should be qualified. Moreover, he should have love for the poor and extend them all support,” he said.

Mr. Sebastian Paul said the new pope’s decision to select the name Francis holds a lot of significance considering the fact that Saint Francis was a servant to the poor and the destitute. “He was also an admirer of nature and led a simple life,” he said.

Fr. Paul Thelakkat said no other Pope had taken this name. “This shows that he is a man of totally different mould, a spiritual person. European popes were linked with consumerism while Latin America, from where the new pope comes, is different politically, socially and economically. We have now got a pope from the Latin American church, which is not a rich church. He is an incarnation of simplicity,” he said.

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