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 CNS Story:

MISSIONS-POPE Mar-8-2013 (1,050 words) With photo. xxxi

African, Asian pope would attract people to Gospel, says mission leader

Father Small was in Rome for a series of meetings while cardinals met in advance of the conclave to elect a new pope. (CNS/Carol Glatz)

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An African or Asian pope would send an important message to the world and help promote the Gospel to those outside the church, said the national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States.

"It would be great to see a black face again smiling from the Chair of St. Peter. It would be great to see a Chinese face," said Oblate Father Andrew Small, whose office works to help Catholics better understand the church's universal mission and to gather support, prayers and donations for evangelization efforts in the world's lesser developed countries.

The cardinal electors "might elect a perfect internal candidate who's going to be very good for the church and for the people who know the church," he told Catholic News Service March 8.

"But that might not be the way that we can really position the church in the world," he said, which might be better achieved "if the cardinals were to elect somebody who speaks to those outside of the church in a very robust way like an African like an Asian."

The spiritual and pastoral qualities of the man elected pope are "obviously hugely important for us in the church," he said.

"But I think given that the whole world is now looking at the Sistine Chapel, you wouldn't be doing it justice if you just think about what do we as leaders want, instead of saying, 'What does the world need to see?'" he said.

Many cardinal electors have said a new pope's nationality doesn't matter, that the most important qualities are his holiness and concern for the universal church.

While this is true, Father Small said, giving a qualified person from a marginalized nation or ethnicity a position of authority "does matter" and relays an important message, especially about the authentic universality of the church.

"When they're appointing leaders on a day-to-day basis, bishops, cardinals and others are always conscious of such things," he said. And it has been "a high priority" of the church to make sure mission lands have bishops from the local culture or tribes appointed to the dioceses, he said.

Naming Mexican-born Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles to head the largest archdiocese in the United States "is no small thing," the priest said.

But there's still more to be done, including in the choice of pontiff, who, for the last 13 centuries, has always been European, he said.

So while "everywhere is mission land," bishops and religious in poorer countries are faced with the constant struggle "to make ends meet and provide for their people," Father Small said.

Their parishioners don't have the resources to support their own local dioceses, schools, seminaries and clinics, and the church there must turn to richer nations for help.

While the help is greatly appreciated, these bishops "lament that nothing changes for them" and their people continue to live in poverty, Father Small said.

"There's nothing they'd like more than to stand on their own two feet" and to stop being labeled as "being incompetent and inefficient," he added.

Pope Benedict XVI often highlighted the injustice of lingering inequalities in the world, Father Small said; however, many often see the problem as being "peripheral" to the church's other concerns.

"The fair distribution of natural resources, economic equality" and other roots causes of poverty are "just as pressing as the reform of the liturgy and the training of seminarians," the priest said. Father Small once worked as policy adviser on international economic development for the U.S. bishops before serving as director of the Office for the Church in Latin America at the USCCB from 2009 to 2011.

Pope Benedict said "if the church focuses too much on her own place and presence and prestige, then she loses sight of those whom she has come to serve and save," the priest said.

He said that during this pre-conclave period, there is a feeling of expectant change among many leaders and members of the church.

"It's clear that the cardinals, in a sort of a shockingly explicit way, are saying it cannot be business as usual," he said.

"I don't think any of us should be surprised if the word coming from the apostolic palace (after a papal election) is not 'Steady as she goes.'

"The good thing for the new pontiff is he has a mandate for reform. That mandate wasn't there eight years ago. It was a mandate of continuity and they picked (Pope Benedict), the man who could continue most clearly the legacy since he was one of the principle architects of that legacy," he said.

There is a desire for change, he said.

"We need someone who will use the platform to bring change to the whole (of the church) and not just tinker with the parts," meaning problems that are local or regional in nature like sects in Latin America or secularism in Europe, Father Small said.

The pontiff needs to be, like the title suggests, a bridge builder and someone who has the energy and dynamism to transcend local issues and promote a larger vision, he said, citing Pope Benedict's emphasis on the importance of strengthening one's faith, prayer life and relationship with Jesus.


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