Catholic Church

Will Pope Francis visit China? And, if so, in whose dress?

Tension and humour coexist as new pope's election casts a spotlight on Beijing and Rome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 6:31am

American comedian Bill Maher compared last week's papal conclave to the Oscars, saying: "It's so exciting. We all want to know who will win and whose dress will he be wearing!"

For the many millions of Catholics across the world, however, finding a new pope takes on a little more significance than that. The 115 cardinals involved in the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio - now Pope Francis - on Wednesday had been locked in isolation in the Sistine Chapel of Vatican City since Tuesday afternoon.

Four inconclusive votes were held before the College of Cardinals reached a decision. At least 77 of the cardinals, or two-thirds, had to agree on a single candidate before he could be elected pope.

The conclave has been the procedure for choosing the pope for more than half of the time the church has been in existence, and is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution.

Bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon made history by becoming the first Hongkonger to vote for a pope. Who he voted for is unknown.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the former head of the diocese, said there was no need for Tong to "consult" with others before making his decision on who should succeed Pope Benedict, 85, who stepped aside on February 28 - the first pope to retire in six centuries.

Despite retaining his position as cardinal, Zen did not vote as, at 81 years old, he is just over the age limit for cardinals taking part in an election. He missed out on voting in the conclave that chose Benedict in 2005, as he was not elevated to cardinal status until 2006. When he was elected, Benedict made it clear he wanted to re-establish diplomatic relations with Beijing that were severed in 1951 (the Vatican instead recognises Taipei). He wrote a landmark letter to the 12 million Catholics in China in 2007, urging them to unite under Rome's wing.

But tensions with the state-backed church there remain. Beijing does not recognise the pope as the leader of China's Catholics and has appointed its own church leaders.

However, Zen said no matter who was chosen, China would continue to be a focus among the Vatican leadership. Veteran pan-democrat politician Martin Lee Chu-ming, a devout Catholic who has met Benedict, said he hoped his successor would be invited to the mainland to inspire Catholics there, too.

Only time will tell if Pope Francis will make the trip to China. Meanwhile, Maher is still trying to find out who designed his dress.