India is Asia's unlikely power broker in election for new pope
Indian cardinals comprise five of continent's nine papal electors; two of them say nationality of candidates should not be a major factor
India's Catholics may account for less than 2 per cent of the country's population but they will be Asia's most powerful voice in the election to choose a new pope.
Five of the nine Asian cardinals with the right to vote at the upcoming papal enclave hail from India, an overwhelmingly Hindu nation where Catholics are also outnumbered by Muslims and Sikhs.
Only Italy, America and Germany will be represented by more cardinal electors when they meet in Vatican City.
With around 17 million practising Catholics, India is home to the Church's second- largest community in Asia after the Philippines.
Like elsewhere on the continent, Indian Catholics would love to see an Asian succeed Benedict XVI, with Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, the name most often mentioned by Vatican observers.
Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai who is among the five Indian cardinals, has expressed doubt that an Asian will be elected pope for the first time and insists that a candidate's birthplace should not be a major factor.
"For me it's not important what continent he comes from," he told the Catholic News Service.
"We want a person who is most suitable for this assignment and most suitable for the very great responsibility, the one to whom the Holy Spirit guides us."
Telesphore Toppo, the archbishop of Patna and another of the five Indian cardinal electors, has also said that nationality should not be a factor.
Thousands of kilometres away from the Vatican, the election is being closely followed in India's coastal state of Goa.
One in four of the state's 1.5 million population is Catholic - a legacy of centuries under Portuguese rule - and many would love to see an Asian become the church's leader.
But they also stress that his beliefs on keynote issues are the most important consideration.
"It would be an honour for the continent," said Peter Cabral, 56, a baker, outside a church in Panaji, Goa's state capital. Cabral hopes that regardless of where the pope comes from, he will have a truly global outlook.
"He should not sit only in the Vatican while heading the flock," he said. "He should personally see the people before deciding the agenda."
Although an Asian pope would be a radical departure from tradition, many Catholics expressed the desire that a change at the top should not lead to major changes on social issues.
Banker Richard D'Mello, 37, said the new pope should be "a bit liberal" but stick to "traditional religious ethos".
"The church is against gay marriage and contraception, so let it be that way. Liberal values does not mean he should challenge everything," he said.
A reader survey by the Union of Catholic Asian News found that sex abuse by the clergy and its handling by church authorities is the top priority for the next pope, who will have to deal with a string of scandals.
Other important issues raised included unifying the church and offering a more pastoral response to divorcees.
Jerry Fernandes, who runs a small kiosk on an island off Goa, said the new pope "has a challenge to be different" and adapt the church to changes in the modern world.
"More than the issue of humanity and strengthening religion, he also needs to focus on crucial aspects like the environment," he said.
The election, which should be decided by March 31, was triggered when Benedict became only the second pontiff to step down by choice in the church's 2,000-year history and the first to do so since the Middle Ages.
FIVE TO WATCH
Among the cardinals gathering to select the next pope, these men are seen as potential successors
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55 (Philippines)
Appointed archbishop of Manila in 2011, his youth, charisma, detailed knowledge of Vatican history and progressive outlook make him a strong candidate. If successful, he would be the first Asian pope. He was created a cardinal in November 2012
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 68 (Austria)
One of the favourites, the archbishop of Vienna is respected for his handling of the sex-abuse scandal.
Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63 (Brazil)
The low-profile archbishop of Sao Paulo said last month that it was “time to have someone from a different culture” as pope.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71 (Italy)
A strong favourite, the archbishop of Milan has urged the church to do more to appeal to the modern world on issues such as marriage.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69 (Argentina)
He has represented the Vatican in the US, Venezuela and Mexico and served as the voice of John Paul II when he was ill.
PICKING A POPE
- Cardinals eligible to vote - those under age 80 - are sequestered within Vatican City and take an oath of secrecy.
- There are 118 cardinals under the age of 80 and eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. However, four of them will turn 80 before the end of March. Depending on the date of the conclave, they may or may not be allowed to vote.
- Any baptised Catholic male is eligible for election as pope, but only cardinals have been selected since 1378.
- Two ballots are held each morning and two each afternoon in the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority is required. Benedict in 2007 reverted back to this two-thirds majority rule, reversing a 1996 decision by Pope John Paul II, who had decreed that a simple majority could be invoked after about 12 days of inconclusive voting. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from pushing through a candidate who had only a slim majority.
- Ballots are burned after each round. Black smoke means no decision. White smoke signals that cardinals have chosen a pope and that he has accepted. Bells also signal the election of a pope, to avoid confusion over the colour of the smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel.
- The new pope is introduced from the loggia overlooking St Peter's Square with the words "