Pope Francis turns east with new cardinals

By Felix Wilfred, 1 June 2022
Archbishop William Go, Archbishop of Singapore, who will become a new Cardinal in August 2022. Image: Archbishop William Goh/Facebook/Supplied


Asian cardinals should become the genuine voice of Asia and not become an echo chamber for the Roman Curia

One unmistakable pattern in Pope Francis’ creation of cardinals is once again evident in the new consistory to be held on Aug. 27, when 21 prelates will receive red hats. He does not go by the tradition of conferring cardinalates to particular sees, no matter how ancient they are. So, the dioceses of Milan, Venice, Krakow, Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco are without cardinals.

It is clear that, like Jesus, the pope has an eye for hidden treasures and the ability to project the unknown onto the screen of the global Church. It helps the Church to channel the best talents in its service and its mission to the world. With the new consistory, there will be, for the first time, cardinals from Paraguay, Timor-Leste and Singapore.

The second striking point is that the pope is shifting his attention toward Asia and intends to use some of its best resources. It is striking that of the 16 new cardinals who are entitled to enter the conclave and vote, six are from Asia. Already, there are 15 Asian cardinal electors.

But how well does the Asian Church respond to this growing trust of the pope in the Asian Church? Amid a general mediocrity of leadership, we have two bright stars on the horizon — Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar and Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong — great personalities who are tested by fire and are beacons of light for the future of Asian churches in the midst of an ever-growing and complex geopolitical situation. These lions of Asia are also the ones who could convey to the Vatican the realities on the ground here.

I must add that Asia witnessed another courageous leader, Archbishop Soter Fernandez of Malaysia, who at the far end of his life was created a cardinal ministerium in extremis. Yet justice was done, though belatedly, like in the case of Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald of the UK — a champion of the cause of interreligious dialogue.

But to what extent have these valiant Asian cardinals been listened to? Today, the expectation of Asian representatives in curial offices — we have two Asian cardinals heading two important dicasteries — would be that they become the genuine voice of Asia and not become an echo chamber for the Roman Curia to hear what they like to hear.

With 21 cardinal-electors from Asia in the eventuality of a conclave, the choice of a future pope will depend quite significantly on the Asian group and their perception and assessment of the Church in Asia and the situation of the Church globally. I am glad that Archbishop William Goh of Singapore, a former member of the Office of Theological Concerns of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, will receive the red hat. We can hope that he will convey Asian theological perspectives to the Church’s central administration.

Church leaders in Asia, especially its cardinals who have direct access to the pope, have the vital responsibility of reflecting and representing the situation of the local churches in constantly developing sociopolitical contexts. For example, the question of China may not be looked at narrowly from the relationship between the Church and the Chinese state. It is a much larger question.

Totalitarian communist regimes have crumbled in Eastern Europe and are waning elsewhere. In Asia, instead, communist regimes are thriving in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is expanding its tentacles in the Indo-Pacific region. Its policies also impact other nations and the life of the Church and its mission in Asia.

One would not understand the situation in Myanmar, for example, without seeing the solid support of the CCP there. This calls for a more comprehensive policy of the Church regarding communist regimes in the larger geopolitical context and not seeing the China question, for example, in isolation from other countries or through the lens of a pragmatic dialogue with the communist state over the appointment of bishops.

Speaking of India, it is gratifying to note that years of struggle by representatives of the Dalit community and Dalit bishops to convey their plight have borne some fruit with the creation of a Dalit cardinal. The elevation of Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad signals a change in the Vatican regarding the Dalit question. The pope seems to have underlined with this gesture that he wants an inclusive church where there is no caste discrimination. All the Indian Church should rejoice, not only the Dalit community.

It needs to be pointed out that the Dalits of Tamil Nadu and its Dalit bishops have been at the forefront of the cause of the Dalit people. As an ancient Tamil poetic verse says, what the coconut tree consumes by its feet, it gives by its head. Yes, what was watered and nurtured in Tamil Nadu has borne fruit in Andhra Pradesh, it would seem. That aside, it would be the expectation of the Dalit community in India that the new Dalit cardinal becomes their voice in the Indian Church and in the Vatican and does not remain a mere symbol and token.

There needs to be a space in the Church for the leadership of the marginalized at all levels — national, regional and provincial. The marginalized voices need opportunities to exercise their leadership. A local church’s method of considering the hierarchical dignity and protocol in electing its leaders may not enable it to identify the right kind of leader at a definite time and sociopolitical context.

Tradition can often be a matter of dead habits. For example, should a cardinal always be the head of the Indian bishops’ conference? Should an archbishop always be the head of a regional council? These bodies should be where charisms of leadership are discerned and identified. A simple bishop from a remote corner of the country could become the president of national or regional bodies of bishops. I wish this would happen sooner rather than later, with leaders changing their mindset and employing a greater sense of creativity.

I was excited when a few months ago the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines elected Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of a nondescript small diocese as its president. When the national churches in Asia are ready to discern and select a bishop for his leadership qualities, unbound by consideration of rites, ecclesiastical rank and caste affiliation, it is a clear sign that the Church is turning a new leaf and becoming faithful to its call and mission.

The wise leaders from the margins, endowed with sterling leadership talents, will also be the ones who will be able to represent faithfully Asian churches in the central administration. This will be a new dawn.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

With thanks to UCA News and Felix Wilfred, where this article originally appeared.


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