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Dreaming of an Asian option in the conclave


The other evening I had a dream.

The Holy Father had died. The church was in an interregnum, that time between popes. The College of Cardinals had just completed two weeks of meetings, a period of mourning, and was preparing to elect the first pope of the third millennium.

The cardinals had gathered in the Sistine Chapel. For days they had discussed who among them was best qualified to lead the church forward, but no clear candidate had emerged.

The cardinals wanted to avoid another long pontificate. The man they would elect would be in his 60s, maybe early 70s. His would be a “transitional” pontificate -- but to what no one seemed to have a clue.

The Italian cardinals clearly wanted an Italian as bishop of Rome. However, aside from Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, their own ranks lacked international appeal. Several other Europeans looked interesting; so, too, did a couple of Latin Americans; no African candidate had yet charmed the assembly, and few thought it wise to elect an American, not with the United States carrying such superpower baggage.

It was not an impasse point, but a malaise could be felt. No name, no idea, had seized their imaginations.

From the outside one could recognize certain undeniable realities. Of the 105 cardinal-electors who had gathered, 93 -- nearly 90 percent -- had been appointed by Pope John Paul II, a man they loved and admired.

It was also true that a vast majority felt a pressing need to move the church in a new direction. The church, many felt, had become far too centralized. Many could recall the remark of one cardinal who summed up the princely discontent, saying, “We didn’t give our entire lives to the church to be treated as altar boys.” Many cardinals were downright miffed. Collegiality was emerging as an important issue. Even the conservatives had expressed this need.

It was within the context of wanting both continuity and discontinuity that a young cardinal stood up and offered a short reflection. He reminded them of an idea close to the heart of the late pope. He then began to cite words Pope John Paul had first spoken in January 1995, in Manila, Philippines, words he repeated again in one of his last apostolic exhortations, Ecclesia in Asia.

The cardinal read from a small piece of paper.

“Just as in the first millennium, the cross was planted on the soil of Europe and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa,” the cardinal said, quoting Pope John Paul, “we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital [Asian] continent.”

He then folded the paper and sat down. What followed was a stunned silence as the implication of that single paragraph sank deeper into the collective consciousness of the assembled cardinals. Soon an unspoken word could seemingly be heard throughout the chapel with unmistakable clarity.

How fitting, how novel, how appropriate to enter the third millennium with an Asian pope as leader of the Catholic church. What a gift to life and hope it would be!

It was at this point I woke from my dream and cannot say whom the cardinals chose, which of the dozen candidates finally received the required two-thirds vote. But, thinking back, I can say from my limited knowledge of Asia that the candidates generally shared certain “Asian” characteristics.

It can be said these candidates were spiritually driven men and saw spirituality and social justice as one. They seemed to avoid conflict, thinking that “either/or” patterns did not serve reality well. They preferred “both/and” solutions whenever possible. It’s called thinking with “inclusive dualism.” These men, to the last, were sensitive to religious symbols and prefer them as guides. Order, they thought, grows out of establishing proper relationships, beginning with family. How one acts expresses more than what one says or even what gets written, they would agree.

Further, these cardinals had grown up feeling enormous pride in Asia’s rich traditions, especially its religious and cultural heritages. They further knew -- from experience -- that poverty and marginalization are the conditions under which most of humanity lives. So, too, had they experienced the arrogance of colonial rule. Notions of inclusiveness and respect held true deep within them.

Given the chance, each would remind us at the drop of a miter that Jesus and his early disciples were all Asians. The challenge of the 21st century, they knew, is to spawn a new global harmony and bring new balance and hope to the human family.

That’s pretty much it, except for one other point. I remember from my dream how electrified and inspired Catholics throughout the world were at the announcement of the Asian pope -- and, as I recall, it was not long after that the U.S. bishops, at long last, got around to assuring that the first handful of Asian bishops were finally appointed to their conference of bishops.

Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000