As the conclave convenes officially on Tuesday to decide the successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – and the future direction of the Universal Catholic Church – I find myself hoping as never before that the cardinals choose wisely.
It is my hope that the next pope will better guide the Church according to the principles on which Jesus founded it: to bring the Good News of salvation to those who do not know it.
Asia, the largest of the world’s continents and with two nations whose populations exceed a billion souls, must become a greater priority. Indeed, this region is where the Gospel is perhaps least known.
But the Good News and Asia have a deep bond. Jesus was Asian, as were the apostles and the Virgin Mary. It was in Asia in the early centuries of the Church (in Syria, Armenia, Palestine, Persia and Afghanistan) that the Gospel spread quickly and took root.
In those days, Asian Christians using the Syriac as the liturgical language outnumbered Christians in Europe.
Today, the major religions with which dialogue is needed, the cultures with which we must engage, the poor and oppressed that require liberation, are in Asia.
But Asia remains on the margins of ecclesiastical concerns and underrepresented within the institutional Church. Cardinals from Asia are few and the voice of Asian Catholics is seldom heard – this despite the fact that Asia (along with Africa) represents the fastest-growing Catholic community in the world and one of the most oppressed.
So it is my hope that the new pontiff will continue opening new ground in Asia, and in China in particular, by giving Asia the attention it deserves.
Benedict XVI made sincere attempts at dialogue with China and had a special regard for the Church and its people there.
As has been said in the past by Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, Vatican officials did not seize the opportunity Benedict provided them. Instead, they responded with traditional diplomatic skirmishes, from which only miserable consequences for the good of the Gospel come.
I also hope that the new pontiff drastically diminishes the significance and function of the Vatican’s secretary of state, as Pius XII did. Such titles perpetuate, among those who do not know the Gospel and the Church, the misconception that the Church is an earthly power – even a state – and should be dealt with as such.
The diplomatic apparatus of the Church must also be dramatically downsized, as it has nothing to do with the will of Jesus and the apostolic nature of the Church. Rather, it produces an array of powerful careerist officials wholly unknown to Christian communities.
The Chinese government, in unmitigated bad faith, continues to play on this ambiguity by charging the Church with pursuing political aims.
When the news of Benedict’s resignation made headlines worldwide, Chinese officials suggested that he had been defeated and overwhelmed by scandal – thereby promoting the idea that the Church is a political and financial power that can win or lose on the world stage.
To combat such a mistaken notion, it is my hope that the next pontiff will abolish the Vatican Bank – or if this is impossible, then at least transform the institution into something that will not continue to humiliate Christians as it has done for the last 30 years.
The Church, like the bank, must be a glass house with no secrets and nothing to bring shame on the people of God.
If this is to happen, then the next pope must be a true man of God, a man who believes in God in a way that is palpably clear to all believers in all parts of the world and from every faith and culture.
He must be a man of unimpeachable honesty and sincerity, whose actions accord with his conscience, a man bereft of all political or ecclesiastical scheming. The Church needs a simple man who prizes simple truth above clerical prestige.
Such a man would be an enigma to famous intellectuals and the international media, and he would utterly disregard the opinions of political, economic or cultural potentates.
I hope for such a man, who like Jesus valued the poor more than the rich, the oppressed rather than the privileged, the humble more than the high-born. A man capable and willing to fight for peace and justice and who trembles with pain and outrage at the economic and political oppression under which the majority of humanity still lives.
The next pontiff must esteem women, value their contributions and promote their greater input in the Church. He must have good friends as well as loyal and trustworthy collaborators. He must steer clear of worldly entanglements and insist his cardinals do the same.
At the end of the day, it is my hope that the next pope will inspire fidelity and humility by doing what Benedict XVI has done in relinquishing his office: diminishing his personal role while magnifying the role of the true head of the Church, which is Jesus.
Father Gianni Criveller is a member of the Pontifical Foreign Missions Institute and a veteran Sinologist who is based in Hong Kong.