Will Asia's voice be heard?
What influence will Asians have on the upcoming papal vote?
He might have been considered a “eurocentric” compared to his globe-trotting predecessor. But Benedict XVI, at least with his last moves, tried to redress the balance of a Church that in recent years had been favoring more and more Westerners for top roles even as the core of the world's Catholic population shifts increasingly towards Asia and Africa.
In his last conclave, the pontiff made sure to appoint six non-Europeans to the cardinalate, in partial correction of a February 2012 consistory that had been widely criticized for giving too much weight to Vatican Curia insiders and Old World churchmen.
In fact, the unusual move of hosting two consistories in the same year might be seen as proof that, already three months ago, Benedict was keen on leaving his Vatican house in as much order as possible ahead of his resignation.
Among the six new red hats of last November, there were two Asians: Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of the Syro-Malankar Church in India and Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, in the Philippines, the latter of which is considered a possible contender for the first Asian pontiff in the upcoming conclave.
Tagle is probably too young – both in absolute terms at 55 and in terms of red hat seniority – to stand a real chance in the Sistine Chapel. But his voice will be respected among the cardinals, from inside and outside Asia, as he is widely esteemed for his kind frankness, his being at ease with the media and his resolve in urging the Church to avoid sweeping problems such as the sex abuse scandal under the rug unless the media brings them out into the light.
Tagle will lead the small troupe of Asian cardinals who will take part in the election of the next pope.
Of the 118 cardinals who are today of voting age – 117 should be called to vote, as Ukraine's Husar will turn 80 and thus lose his voting rights on February 26, just two days ahead of Benedict's resignation – only 11 will come from Asia.
Almost half of them are from India - Ivan Dias, Telesphore Placidus Toppo, Oswald Gracias, George Alencherry and Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal – while the rest are equally divided among six nations: the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and China.
Ironically, the Philippines' more than 80 million Christians will be represented solely by Tagle in the conclave in comparison to India's 20 million, as they are divided between several rites and traditions.
For a quick calculation in the election of Benedict's successor, Asia will be represented by the same number of red hats – 11 – as in the conclave that followed Blessed John Paul II's death.
In fact, there have been few changes in geographical distribution over the past eight years. Europe gained three cardinals (from 58 to 61), slightly surpassing half the totalof voting cardinals, while Latin America slightly diminished its weight, losing two cardinals, and Oceania saw its representation halve to just one red hat, Australia's George Pell.
So while Benedict did try to redress the eurocentric slant of today's Church with his last appointments, the reality is that the Asian voice at the upcoming conclave will be by no means deafening.
Alessandro Speciale is our correspondent in Vatican City
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