India has emerged as Asia’s most powerful voice in the election to choose a new pope with five of the nine Asian cardinals being Indians.
The cardinals, including Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Cardinal George Alencherry and Cardinal Baselios Mar Cleemis, come from an overwhelmingly Hindu nation where Catholics are also outnumbered by Muslims and Sikhs.
Only Italy, the United States of America and Germany will be represented by more cardinal electors when they meet in Vatican City.
But with around 17 million practicing 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 take over from Benedict XVI, with Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila being the name most often mentioned by Vatican observers.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, also the archbishop of Mumbai, 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,” he added.
Thousands of miles away from the Vatican, the election is being closely followed in the coastal state of Goa, a place better known in the West for its hedonistic beach parties.
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, a 56-year-old baker said outside the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Panaji, the 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 should personally see the people before deciding the agenda,” he said.
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.
India: Nine other ministers also took the oath.