Five of the 115 cardinal electors at the conclave in March will be Indian. It is the first time in history than a Church in Asia has had so many cardinals voting to elect a Pope.

I discussed the significance of this with Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the president of the Latin Bishops’ Conference of India, after the November consistory at which Pope Benedict created six new cardinals, including two Asians.

Cardinal Toppo participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. We discussed that historic event as well as the future conclave.


India now has five cardinal electors in the conclave. It is the first time in history that any Church in Asia has had so many cardinal electors…

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo: This is true, but it is not too much because India has the fourth largest Conference of Catholic Bishops in the world, after Brazil, the USA and Italy. So it’s understandable that we have five cardinals.

Is there now a real possibility of an Asian Pope?

Toppo: The possibility is always there. The possibility is definitely there, but how long it will take to make it a reality we do not know. In my view, it is not simply a question of any personal quality of an individual cardinal or anything like that which makes the Pope, at least so far. It is the Church that produces the Pope.

Could you explain this?

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo.

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo.

Toppo: Quality may produce a Pope, but I think it is the local Church with a strong Catholic faith that could produce the next Pope. We saw that it was the Polish Church with its strong Catholic faith that produced John Paul II. His successor, too, came from a Church with a strong Catholic faith, because in spite of Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation the Church in Bavaria remained strongly Catholic. And Ratzinger was archbishop in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, before coming to Rome to work in the Vatican. So to my way of thinking, it is that kind of Church which produces the Pope.

In that sense, if the Philippine Church lives up to the mark, so to say, it too could produce a Pope. The Church in India, on the other hand, is always scattered with a tiny minority of Catholics — 18 million — and so it is not possible for it to produce a Pope. The Pope should somehow represent the whole Church and he should have his roots in a truly unified local Church.

So you think it is unlikely that a divided or polarized Church will produce a Pope.

Toppo: Right.

Many speak about the Filipino Cardinal Tagle as a possible candidate to be Pope…

Toppo: It is quite possible, but I don’t say that now. I mean the Philippines is the only Catholic country in the whole of Asia, apart from East Timor, which is very small. The Filipino Church is united with a strong Catholic faith and tradition, so it could produce a Pope. Certainly the archbishop of Manila, Tagle, is well qualified to be cardinal. When I met him at the consistory I told him, “You were the last on the Pope’s list but you are by no means the least! You are Number 1 in Asia!”

What would you be looking for in a candidate to be the next Pope?

Toppo: It is not simply a question of looking. For instance, in the 2005 conclave it was clear to me who was the candidate. For those who wanted to see, they could already see at the very beginning, the way things were moving. They could see Ratzinger was the man. He was Dean of the College of Cardinals and then he was moderator of the meetings of cardinals before the conclave. Moreover, he was the main celebrant at the funeral of John Paul II, and prior to that he had written the meditations for the Way of the Cross. Everything somehow seemed to indicate that he was the man. It was just like that.

So, when you go into the next conclave you do not go in with an identikit in your head of the kind of man you would like to see as Pope?

Toppo: No. I think we must listen to what the Spirit is telling the Church. That is my attitude. Of course “whisperings” go on, cardinals speak to one another. Those who are here in Rome do so. I try to listen to the Holy Spirit more than to people, but among the “whisperings” of course the Holy Spirit is also whispering.

(Published in Vatican Insider)

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