The election of the first pope in history not from Europe is a sign the Catholic church is turning toward a part of the world where it’s still growing and relevant, says a Sudbury theology professor.
Dr. Melchoir Mbonimpa, who teaches at the University of Sudbury, said Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Pope Francis, has an opportunity to bring new voices into the College of Cardinals.
“I hope the southern (hemisphere) will get more cardinals,” Mbonimpa said. “The cardinals picked someone from a geographical region of the world where Catholicism is still alive … For now, the majority of (Cardinals) are from Europe and North America.”
The only place where the church is growing and continues to play a big role in most people’s lives is in the Third World, he said. So it only makes sense that influence of clergy those parts of the world should grow now that Catholics have a pope from Argentina.
“If the Third World had bigger representation, it would recognize that fact,” Mbonimpa said. “And not just from South America, but from Africa and countries where religion is still very meaningful.”
While Pope Francis, 77, is not young, people hoping for reform within the church shouldn’t be discouraged, he said.
“Maybe someone younger could hope to have enough time to change things,” Mbonimpa said. “But in the 20th Century, the pope who changed things the most was very, very old -- John XXIII.”
Pope John, who was also 77 when he became pope in 1958, introduced a wave of reforms under Vatican II, including switching the mass to English from Latin and having the priest face parishioners rather than the altar.
Francis is also a Jesuit, the first time a member of that religious order has been named pope.
“The Jesuits have a very special kind of education,” he said. “They are open to change, open to new ideas that come from the (Catholic) frontier.”
Pope Benedict set an important example for Francis and all future popes, Mbonimpa said, by retiring.
“That was very good news for Catholics, that a pope who feels he is too old is able to resign and hand things over to someone who has the energy to lead,” he said. “Personally, I think at John Paul II was not able to rule the church for the four or five last years. He was very diminished, and I don’t think that’s a very good thing.”
Despite differences in churches across the world, a sex abuse scandal the church is still struggling with, and calls for reform from all parts of the world, Mbonimpa said Francis should have the support of Catholics across the world as he begins his tenure.
“I don’t think there’s a very great danger right now of separation or schism in the church,” he said. “I don’t see such a danger.”