ROME — “We are praying for it,” says Ferdinand de Guzman, standing in the doorway of the Santa Pudenziana church, about a mile from the Colosseum and the Lateran Basilica, two famous Roman landmarks.
The Filipino Catholic was speaking about the possibility that his compatriot, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, could emerge as pope after the conclave, which starts Tuesday.
“If God wills it, he will be pope, but if not, we will surely support our new Holy Father, whoever that may be,” said de Guzman, from Tarlac in the Philippines, but now in his 20th year living in Rome.
The 55-year-old Cardinal Tagle has had a meteoric rise in the Church, appointed cardinal in October 2012 by Benedict XVI, and was named a member of the International Theological Commission by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
And Rome's Filipinos have been rewarded in the past for their devotion: Santa Pudenziana is now the designated church for Rome's Filipino community, a gift from John Paul II.
Sitting 20 feet below street level, it is possibly the oldest Christian worship site in Rome. Inside, art and sculpture down the centuries is mixed with some of the most ancient remnants of Rome's Christian heritage. The church is built on the house of St. Pudens, who was killed on the orders of the Roman emperor Nero, and where St. Peter is said to have stayed and said Mass prior to his own martyrdom. Devotion at the site is said to date back to two centuries prior to Constantine's conversion and the legalization of Christianity.
The Philippines and East Timor are the only two Catholic-majority countries in Asia, and with around 76 million Catholics, the Philippines has the world's third-biggest Catholic population, after Brazil and Mexico.
But Catholics and Christians are a small percentage of Asia’s overall population, as evidenced by the early-morning crowd March 11 inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
The 200 or so visitors are a mix of pilgrims, 8am Massgoers and tourists. It is a reminder that not everyone is visiting because of the conclave, with the city state’s ornate art and architecture drawing non-Catholics like Minami Kurohashi. The English and culture student at Osaka University in Japan is on her last day in Rome, before catching a train to Florence.
“I'm a tourist, not a worshipper,” she said. “I'm here because I am interested in the history, the art,” she added, pointing to up and around to the vast, lush interior of the church. “It's so powerful; I am lost for words,” she whispered.
Some of the other early-morning visitors have come a long way, however, just for the conclave. “I have a hope that we will have a pope from the Third World,” said Mukara Jamal, a restaurant owner from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, who brought his wife and three children to Rome on pilgrimage, hoping to see the new pope before their return to Rwanda.
Between 1978 and 2007, roughly encompassing the papacy of John Paul II, the number of Catholics in Africa swelled from 55 million to 146 million, and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, currently president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is another papabile, going by some of the pre-conclave speculation.
Such growth in numbers and strong adherence to Catholic doctrine, for the most part, puts Africa in contrast with the West, where church attendances are falling and where calls for social liberalization of teaching are common.
These days, African priests are increasingly common in countries such as Ireland, which once sent priests to Africa but where now vocations are rare. It all has prompted speculation that a fourth African pope could emerge after this conclave, the first since Gelasius I died in 496.
“The media is saying the cardinal from Ghana is the second place, after one Italian,” said Mukara Jamal. “Maybe it can happen like in America with Obama, the first time an African-American president was elected,” he added.
Weight of Numbers
But, if there is to be a non-European pope, and, if the contest came down to no more than the weight of a continent’s Catholic population, the Americas would surely be next in line. Brazil and Mexico account for well over 200 million of the world’s Catholics between them, almost a fifth of the global total, with another 70 million Catholics in the United States.
Visiting from California, Franciscan Father Joe Kim is with the Order of Friars Minor, known for its role in hearing confessions in the Vatican.
Brazil’s Cardinal Odilo Scherer and Cardinals Sean O’Malley and Timothy Dolan from the United States are said to be contenders for the papacy, but asked if it matters where the next pope comes from, the Korean-American Father Kim replies, “I think no.”
“That type of thinking excludes the Holy Spirit,” he says.
Father Kim believes that it is a difficult and challenging time for the Church, saying what matters is that the next pope can manage the twin challenges of evangelization and of penance.
Said Father Kim, “Ultimately, those are the same for older Catholic countries in Europe and for countries and people everywhere else.”
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia for several publications and is on assignment in Rome for the Register during the conclave period. He’s on twitter @simonroughneen, and his articles can be seen at simonroughneen.com