VATICAN CITY -- As Holy Week drew to a close, a lagging Pope John Paul II delivered the traditional Easter address to a crowd of over 150,000 pilgrims, tourists, and Romans. After calling for peace in 61 languages and beseeching the world to end racism and xenophobia, the pope made a surprise announcement.
At the end of his two-hour appearance, fighting hand and head tremors that make moving and speaking difficult, John Paul spoke publicly about his struggles with Parkinson's disease and informed the faithful that this disease would soon render him unable to execute his duties as pope. In an unprecedented move, he also urged the College of Cardinals, the body responsible for the election of popes, to choose a cleric of African descent to replace him.
"The face of the Holy Catholic Church in the third millennium is not white," the pontiff explained, as he briefly extolled the role of Africans in the church from the times of the Roman Empire.
Invoking Easter as a time to "overturn the hardness of our hearts" and "impel individuals and state to full respect" for human rights, John Paul further declaimed that over the past 500 years the Catholic Church's record on human rights issues has been mixed at best. Earlier this year, in fact, the Vatican issued edicts apologizing for its role in the Spanish Inquisition, the conquest of Latin America, and the Holocaust.
Sources close to the College of Cardinals believe the pope's successor has indeed been chosen and will most likely be Francis Arinze, a 66-year-old Nigerian cardinal. Arinze, who converted to Catholicism from a traditional African religion when he was only nine years old, parrots Pope John Paul's conservative social stances but is also known for reaching out to the Third World. In the past, Arinze called for talks with leaders of other religions, and is closely associated with a campaign to diversify the church.
The bishop's fate will depend on the roughly 120-member College of Cardinals, which will designate the next leader of the Roman Catholic world. There are presently 15 Africans in the College of Cardinals, and almost half of the college's members are neither European nor North American.
The charismatic and media-savvy African cleric, who has lived and worked in Rome for over a decade now, would represent that majority of Catholics who now live in the Third World; the fastest-growing Catholic population, on a percentage basis, is African.
"The Catholic Church is explicitly rejecting attitudes of racism and xenophobia," comments Paul Wilkinson, a journalist who covers the Vatican for the Associated Press. "But the real question now is: 'Which score will they settle? Latin America or Africa?'"
Wilkinson and other experts on the Catholic Church suggest that there is a power struggle under way and that Arinze may face competition from would-be candidates such as Bishop Ruíz García, the head of the Catholic Church in the war-torn Mexican state of Chiapas.
"What makes one more Catholic, spreading the Gospel and growing the community of Catholics or challenging unjust empires?" asks Wilkinson. "This is a fight for the very soul of the Catholic Church."
García is one of several prominent Catholic leaders in Latin America championing the rights of the poor and denouncing the effects of neo-liberal economic policies in the Southern Hemisphere. In sharp contrast, Arinze has chosen not to involve himself in such worldly struggles, preferring that the church concentrate on bringing more believers to the faith rather than embroiling itself in national political disputes.
Sister Virginia Delacroix, who edits an Internet newsletter called The Vatican Today, believes the college is torn between a candidate who espouses the church's antagonism toward the effects of free-market economic policies in the developing world and a candidate who can best serve diverse communities, rich and poor, while continuing to add to the church rolls.
South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.Worldwide Wire Service