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Papal contender has passion for poor


Though the jury is not yet in, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of São Paulo, Brazil, could prove a sort of Basil Hume on the Amazon, a man who draws respect outside the Catholic church and inspires hope within, especially for the marginalized.

Like the legendary late cardinal of Westminster, England, Hummes (pronounced oomes) has been strongly influenced by his religious order. Hume’s years as a Benedictine abbot gave him a profound sense of community, while Hummes’ Franciscan background, including a stint as provincial in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, seems to have left a special passion for the poor.

Also like Hume, Hummes is cautious, striving mightily not to alienate or offend (his episcopal motto is “We are all brothers”). That has disappointed some who hoped for more fire in the belly from a bishop who once supported a metallurgists’ strike led by leftist activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and who is a friend of fiery Dominican liberation theologian Frei Betto.

Finally, like Hume in his day, Hummes is the object of serious attention as a papal contender.

Any measurement of the qualities of strong papal candidates is certainly in his favor. He is 67, neither too old nor too young. He comes from the Third World, where the future of Catholicism lies. He is a pastor rather than a curial figure, meaning brother cardinals trust him to know how things work in the real world. He is centrist on doctrine, open to debate and slow to judgment. He has been extremely strong on social justice issues. He smiles, makes jokes at his own expense and speaks five languages.

In a key sign of Vatican favor, Hummes was asked to preach the Lenten retreat for the papal household this year, which ran from Feb. 17 to 23. (Karol Wojtyla, as archbishop of Krákow, gave the Lenten Retreat for Paul VI in 1976, two years before becoming John Paul II.)

In short, if one were compiling a Billboard list of top papabili, Hummes’ name would surely get a bullet.

In a session organized by NCR, Hummes met with a group of reporters Feb. 21 at the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where one day he will take part in the conclave that elects the next pope.

Hummes made short work of his prospects as a papal candidate, dismissing such speculation as “fantasy,” describing his retreat talks as a series of “humble spiritual reflections.” Two days before the exercises were to end, Hummes said he had not even spoken personally with the pope.

Hummes became more animated, however, discussing social questions. Under Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, the Catholic church was often seen as a quasi-Marxist opposition force. Vatican ambivalence about that role was reflected in numerous disciplinary measures.

Early in his episcopal career, Hummes was closely identified with the Brazilian activist spirit. As he has moved up the ecclesial ladder, some have detected a pulling back. During his short period as bishop of Fortaleza, from 1996 to 1998, a group of progressive priests signed a letter criticizing him.

Yet Hummes strongly defends the prophetic contribution of the Brazilian church.

“The church carried out a great work of raising consciousness, of putting pressure on the government,” he said, “not only so that democratic liberties and human rights would be fully respected and restored, but also so that there would be more social justice, above all for the redistribution of wealth.”

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilian families, he noted, have received pieces of land under redistribution efforts long supported by the Catholic church.

Hummes said that on the global level, the powerbrokers in the G-8 today stand before a historic responsibility.

“They must search an alternate global economic program where all have the possibility to integrate themselves, and no one remains outside. There will be no future if things go on as they now stand,” he said.

Hummes added, however, that he believes progress will be made, if only because it is in the self-interest of the elites to do so.

“The leaders realize we can’t go on like this,” he said. “Also for them, it’s better to be attentive to the question of poverty, of exclusion.”

Hummes said he has echoed in the Lenten retreat the dramatic appeal made by African bishops at last October’s synod in Rome, calling for greater international attention to the problems of poverty, hunger, AIDS, and commercial exploitation on their continent.

“These countries feel that no one cares, that they have no future, that they’re being submerged,” Hummes said. “We cannot simply let that go on.”

Hummes also identified ecology, which he called “a question of the survival of the human race on this planet,” and biotechnology as other grand challenges of the moment.

Hummes was more guarded when asked to identify key inner-ecclesial issues, such as the debate over married priests, ecumenism, centralization and the priest shortage. Rather than picking individual issues, Hummes simply said that all need “greater reflection.”

In a potentially telling aside, however, he spoke of the need for intellectual freedom to pursue these questions.

“Theologians have an extremely important role, an office in the church,” he said. Theological speculation must be rooted in scripture and tradition, “but within these sources, the theologians must search for new depths of meaning.”

“The church is not the owner of the gospel; we are its servants. We have to be faithful,” Hummes said. “Yet the gospel must be continually studied, applied, inculturated and updated.”

These comments can be read in more than one sense, and undoubtedly that ambiguity is intentional. Hummes’ first message to the people of São Paulo was that he wanted to be “the bishop of everyone,” and in practice that means trying to stay above internal debates.

Yet leadership sometimes demands more than discretion. The question mark on Hummes, therefore, seems to be whether his vision and energy outside the church will be matched by a similarly strong engagement within. Call it the distance that still separates him from the Basil Hume class of the College of Cardinals.

Frei Betto, the liberation theologian who still holds a job that Hummes gave him years ago overseeing a pastoral program for workers, has no doubt his old friend will figure it out.

“He would be a great pope,” Betto said in response to an NCR query. “He would be even more socially engaged than John Paul II.”

His lone flaw, according to Betto?

“He works too much.”

John L. Allen Jr. is the Rome correspondent for NCR. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002