The Roman Catholic Church has several achievements to its credit, not the least being the way in which it has populated the globe with schools, colleges and hospitals. This columnist has been among the many to have benefitted from such philanthropy. The Jesuits, although not wildly popular with several segments of the church, shepherded hundreds of young students in Bombay’s Campion School, ensuring an education that combined games and fun with study. To this day, memories arise of Brother Franco, always jovial as he escorted his young charges in the school bus, or the regal Father E.J. More, whose numerous attempts to appear the disciplinarian would fall to pieces when he shared a smile and a joke with a parent. To those educated by its institutions or cured of illnesses by the same, the Catholic Church has always been a benign and welcome presence within the India mosaic. However, one facet of the church constantly pushes itself into the foreground of consciousness, and this is its near-total identification with a single continent, Europe.
While Europe enjoys a near monopoly in the creation of saints, it has thus far had a 100% share in the selection of Popes.
It would seem that good as well as bad people are distributed across the globe. While the bad may be, even a brief acquaintance with the Litany of Saints reveals that almost all the noble and virtuous human beings celebrated within its chants are European, while almost all the few that are not are of European ancestry. It would seem that this small but significant continent, which has played such a decisive role in world affairs at least for the past four centuries, has something in its atmosphere or perhaps in its drinking water sources which impel human beings to sainthood in a way absent from Asia, Africa or South America. Still, it seems a trifle odd that almost all those who have been canonised by the Catholic Church hail from the very continent which it has made home. While the Patriarchate of Antioch is the oldest established church in Christendom, this institution has for more than a millennium enjoyed only a fraction of the awe and acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church. These days, thanks to NATO-backed “freedom fighters,” who look askance at any other than fellow Salafis, Christians in Damascus (the home of the Patriarchate) are looking at an uncertain future, much as their co-religionists are in Egypt.
While Europe enjoys a near monopoly in the creation of saints, it has thus far had a 100% share in the selection of Popes. From its inception, the Papacy has been a European — indeed, a largely Italian — institution, albeit one which takes care of the faithful throughout the globe. Thus far there has not been a Pope from outside Europe, although the last time around, there were suggestions that a Cardinal from Argentina or another from Canada (both of good, solid European stock) may get selected. As it turned out, the honour went to Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict. Once again, princes of the Church from the underdeveloped world, such as the scholastic and very able Cardinal Ivan Dias from Mumbai, receded into the background. However, now that Pope Benedict has done the unthinkable and resigned (in a manner that both Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh declined to do, despite their obvious physical infirmities), is it possible that the next Pope may not only not be European, but not even of European stock? Indeed, among the names are Cardinals from Africa, a continent which before long will establish the same scorching pace as Asia is revealing in this era.
The very word “Catholic” implies a universality that the highest rungs of the Church have thus far not demonstrated. Should history get made and a Prince of the Church from Nigeria or India or the Philippines get anointed as the successor to the wise Benedict, the latter has made it clear that he will be around to provide counsel, that too within walking distance of the new Pontiff. Indeed, the creation of the institution of Pope Emeritus seems tailor-made for providing precisely the counsel and direction that a former Pope steeped in the traditional culture of the Church could impart to a successor from afar. Could this have been the design of Pope Benedict when he announced his retirement? If so, it is a masterstroke worthy of the majestic institution that he has been a part of since his youth.