Looking for next pope in Third World

Saturday, September 8, 2001

VATICAN CITY -- In Colombia's coffee country, people talk about Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos as a young priest walking the meanest of streets at night, carrying hot coffee and bread for the beggars and mentally ill who slept on the sidewalks.

In Nigeria, Cardinal Francis Arinze is remembered for turning mission schools into shelters for starving refugees.

And in Vietnam, Cardinal Francois Nguyen Van Thuan is recalled for his courage during nine years of solitary confinement, clinging to his faith and fashioning a Bible out of scraps of paper.

Any of them could be the next pope.

The maneuvering is in full if silent swing during what Pope John Paul II, now 81, himself calls the "twilight years" of his papacy.

The chances have improved since Feb. 21, when John Paul elevated 44 new members to the College of Cardinals, the exclusive club of men eligible to elect a pope from among their ranks.

Selecting a successor

Italians still are the single largest contingent, but no cardinal has emerged as a candidate to rally around. Latin Americans are the largest geographic bloc after the Europeans. In Africa and Asia, the church is directing missionary activities to expand its numbers.

In an interview on German radio last year, Bishop (now Cardinal) Karl Lehmann said outright that those looking for John Paul's successor were eyeing prelates from Latin America.

The most closely watched are six cardinals from different countries and different cultures, who share certain attributes: All are multilingual men of the world, all hold high-profile posts at home or at the Vatican, and all are from the Third World. They are:

Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera

The primate of Mexico is seen by his supporters as the leading contender among Latin American cardinals.

Rivera, 59, is stocky and athletic, with the flat nose and features typical of his Tepehuene Indian ancestors in his native Durango state in the northwest.

He earned a reputation as a strict conservative at a time when liberation theology and other leftist doctrines were in vogue, but is outspoken in accusing Mexico's elite of corruption, election fraud and failing the nation's poor.

Rivera entered the seminary in Durango at age 13. He went to Rome to study theology in 1962, and Pope Paul VI ordained him a priest four years later.

Cardinal Francis Arinze

Nigerians still recall Arinze's work during the Biafra civil war in the late 1960s and early '70s, when missionary schools in the young archbishop's domain were transformed overnight into camps filled with starving refugees. Many European missionaries had been expelled, leaving Arinze with a skeleton staff of young priests and nuns.

"How he kept the church going during that period, only he and God know," said Monsignor Hypolitus, a priest in Nnewi. "It is not easy to look after your flock when they are starving."

Now 68, Arinze was born in the eastern Nigerian town of Eziowelle. His older brother, Peter, remembers him as an academically gifted, unusually quiet youth whose entry into the seminary at age 15 surprised his family. At the time, he said, the parents were both believers in the animism of the Ibo culture, and converted to Catholicism only decades later.

Arinze has worked for more than 20 years at the Vatican, where he has been a key figure in arranging interfaith dialogue among Catholics, Muslims and Hindus.

Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga

As a boy, he dreamed of playing the saxophone in a dance band or becoming a pilot. He learned English to study aviation by mail.

Instead, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga at age 58 is the first cardinal in history from Honduras.

Multilingual, with degrees in philosophy and theology and a diploma in clinical psychology, he is a rising star of the church in Latin America.

As president of the Latin American bishops conference in the late 1990s, he used the forum to denounce the region's foreign debt burden.

Like other cardinals, he has repeatedly spoken out against abortion and destruction of embryos in scientific work, but is considered less rigidly conservative than other Latin Americans elevated by John Paul.

Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

The 73-year-old Vatican official is an inspirational figure for Vietnamese Catholics, the largest Catholic community in Asia after the Philippines.

Thuan was appointed deputy archbishop of Saigon just days before the South Vietnamese capital fell to the communist North in April 1975.

Targeted for his faith as well as his family connections -- his uncle was Ngo Dinh Diem, the assassinated South Vietnamese president -- Thuan spent 13 years in a notorious "re-education" camp -- nine of them in solitary confinement.

But he clung to his faith, fashioning a tiny Bible out of scraps of paper.

Sympathetic guards smuggled in a piece of wood and some wire from which he crafted a tiny crucifix.

He still keeps it with him today.

Forced into exile in 1991, he now lives in Rome and heads a Vatican commission for social, economic and human rights.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos

In Pereira, a town in the heart of Colombia's coffee growing region, a young priest walked the streets at night, feeding the destitute and mentally ill.

When he became a bishop, Castrillon Hoyos took on the police, accusing them of killing prostitutes, street children and beggars.

"After he denounced them in his sermon, the killings stopped and the director of police in Pereira left," Arias said.

Castrillon Hoyos also had an encounter with Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin drug cartel, who waged a bloody war against the state.

The 72-year-old cardinal heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, in charge of priests worldwide.

Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino

The 64-year-old Ortega, who welcomed John Paul in 1998 on the first papal visit to the Caribbean island, has been trying to regain ground the church lost after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power 42 years ago.

Honoring Ortega during a visit to Boston in 1997, Cardinal Bernard Law described the Cuban as "a sign of hope to a world that so desperately needs those signs."

The multitalented future cardinal climbed slowly up the church ladder. An accomplished pianist, he composed music for Mass.

He was consecrated as bishop for the western province diocese Pinar del Rio in January 1979 and was named archbishop of Havana in 1981.

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