Three Cassocks

by Juan L. Mercado


“The  medium-size cassock is fine,” said Luis Antonio Cardinal  Tagle’s  fan. Large, medium and small cassocks are  ready  even as cardinals convened  a day after Benedict  XVI resigned. They’ll  agree to an  early conclave to elect the 257th  successor to Peter the Fisherman.

Bookmaker “Paddy Power” gives Cardinal  Marc Ouellet of Canada   5-2 odds and adds:  Deal  in  Francis Arinze of Nigeria and  Brazil ’s Odilo  Scherer. But  Tagle’s backers  are unfazed.  In 1958,  bookies ignored  Cardinal  Aneglo Roncali.  As Pope John XXIII,  Roncali  launched Vatican II.

The new pope will don the cassock that fits. Habemus Papam, the senior cardinal proclaims. “We have a Pope”. He then blesses crowds summoned to Piazza di San Pietro, by.pealing bells and  white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.    We’ll  see the man who’ll  lead 1.2 billion Catholics.

“How  did  the Vatican arrive at that figure?”, asks BBC. Vatican’s  “Statistical Yearbook”  pinpoints data-gathering gaps. “Parishes make guesstimates  from those who come for rites of passage” like baptism, etc..” Lapsed  or deceased Catholics may still be tallied, University of Essex ’s David Voas notes. “There are more than a quarter of a million Catholic parishes. This problem faces every religion.”

Pew Research Center uses different yardsticks, including migration, Of 75.4 million Catholics in the US , three in one were born outside the States., the Center’s Conrad Hackett points out. The result is a  count of  100 million fewer Catholics.

“Still, you’ve got four or five thousand self-identified Catholics on average per parish”, BBC adds.  “If they all turned up for  Mass Sunday, there’d  be a bit of a squeeze to fit them all in the pews.”

The new pontiff’s in-tray is stacked with problems that  range from sex scandals  to a  curia resistant to change.  But  “few issues  rival the bitter, in¬trac¬table relationship between the Vatican and  Beijing over Catholics in China ” notes Washington Post. 

Nearly half of 12 million Chinese Catholics worship in state-backed churches. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association keeps them on a tight leash. State priests skirt subjects  that’d   upset government. Others  slip into  “underground churches”, in remote buildings or private homes. Is this a replay of  “church of the catacombs?                                                          

To escape persecution, early Christians prayed  in Roman catacombs. Christian martyrs were venerated there too. They emerged  when  their faith was recognized  Catacombs fell into disuse as cathedrals soared: from Notre Dame in Ile-d-France, Cathedral of  Chartres to the Benedectine Abbey on Mont St Michel .

Vatican and China   inched  towards a compromise when Benedict  became pontiff. In a 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, he stressed the church didn’t seek overthrow of China ’s leaders. He raised the possibility of  moving Vatican ’s diplomatic offices from Taiwan to Beijing .  China   sent it’s  Philharmonic Orchestra to play at the Vatican .

When Benedict resigned Thursday, relations were at rock bottom. And the skid  stems from  disagreement on  which side has final say over who gets ordained in China?

The pope has sole authority in appointing bishops, who can ordain priests, the Vatican says.  Only  China   can  select  church leaders, the regime counters.  It  “can render unto Ceasar what belongs to God.”  In 2010, it  rammed through ordination of  Guo Jincai of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.  This inflicted“  a painful wound upon ecclesiastal communion.”, Vatican protested  and excommunicated Guo.

By coincidence, Benedict’s successor will be named about the same time for China ’s own grand conclave. Habemus Papam, China’s ruling Communist Party  declared November, the Economist  reported. . It introduced  seven officials that will lead a nation of 1.3 billion  in the next decade, Unlike the Rome’s  papal conclave, there  were no surprises  Xi Jinping, 59,  is the party’s new general secretary. Xi & Commissars take control of government  March.

That’ s “an opportunity for the two sides to restart,” said Ren Yanli of  Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing .  “Both sides are new,” he said. “They can move forward without historical burdens on their shoulders.”

Isn’t  coincidence in dates of taking office  too thin a peg  for highest hopes?   In 2011, Beijing and Rome agreed on Bishop Thaddues Ma. Daquin, who was ordained in Shanghai .  But the new bishop stunned  everybody by  announcing  he was quitting the state church.

“His words, captured on video, were met with applause from the audience’  Hong Kong papers reported..  Soon after, he was detained by authorities. In December, the state church  stripped him  of his title.

In 1920, Writer Hilaire Belloc proclaimed: “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.” Not anymore. Over the last century, the church  has been moving south, New York Times observes.  Due to work by  religious orders, new conversions, for instance, surged in Africa .  Populations grew modestly in Europe but boomed across the global south—and Catholic numbers grew apace.

Today, the world has 900 million more Catholics than it did in 1900.  But only 100 hundred million of those new additions are Europeans By 2050, Europe will account for perhaps 15 percent of Catholics. Many will be immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America .

The “ Vatican is now  2,000 miles north of its emerging homelands”.  Will  secularism and indifference turn Notre Dame in Ile-d-France, Chartres  cathedral to the Benedectine Abbey on Mont St Michel into museums?

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