This week the Catholic Church announced six new saints to join the wider fold of Catholicism and many of the new saintly figures include those on the very fringes of the Catholic world. They include the very first Native American saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a German nun who worked in leper colonies in Hawaii, a French Jesuit executed in Madagascar and a Filipino seminarian killed in Guam. For many the inclusion of these new saints is partly motivated by a desire to build a wider Catholic Church that recognises the demographic changes that have occurred over the last century.
Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines are now the three biggest Catholic nations in the world, with the Catholic population of Brazil (123,280,172 people) exceeding the combined Catholic populations of both France and Italy. This shifting demographic has influenced the Catholic Church and forced those in the Papacy to recognise that the Catholic populations of these countries may well dictate the future of the church.
The introduction of a Native American saint is a clear indication of the Papacy’s recognition that nations, such as the USA (the fourth largest in terms of Catholic population), are playing an increasingly important role in Church affairs. The power of their congregations, Bishops and priests are becoming more influential both in Papal politics, but also in terms of religious doctrine.
The establishment of a saint from a minority group of Catholics has been received positively by many American, and in particular Native American Catholics, who believe that these smaller, yet highly influential communities, are often sidelined by the wider narrative of Catholicism.
It has also raised the issue of power within Catholicism. In the future is there going to be a divergence in the church as the new frontiers of Catholicism grow to dominate Papal politics. Could we see the first non-European Pope in the modern era? Could we see power shift from the traditional centres in Europe to the new Catholic powers of Latin America?
Latin America, alongside containing the most populous Catholic nations in the world, is also one of the world’s fastest growing regions and as such the power of Catholicism, which is a core characteristic of modern-day Latin American society, is also rapidly growing. Although the majority of the papabili (the preferred candidates to become the next Pope) from the 2005 Papal election were from Europe, with many coming from Italy, the second largest grouping was from Latin America, with representatives from Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Colombia and Cuba all part of the list. In the future it may be these individuals, rather than those in Italy or Germany, who come to dominate the papal elections.
But is the Vatican ready for a non-European Pope?
The papacy is one of the oldest institutions in the world and it is unlikely to be quick to change to accommodate new powers of influence. But is it inevitable that is has to and does it really matter to the Papal hierarchy?
The Pope, by the very nature of the office he holds, is an individual who adopts a separate nationality when he takes up office. For the current Pope, despite him being a German by birth, he is a citizen of the Vatican, a position that transcends national interests and although it is rarely that clean-cut, any subsequent Pope will also be seen as a Vatican citizen first with their national heritage coming second.
With this in mind, a Latin American Pope should not be seen as a threat to the European monopoly of political power, but rather should be seen as a way to spread the ideals of Christianity and Catholicism further round the world to the furthest frontiers and the poorest regions.
Ultimately whether the Papacy is prepared for a Latin American Pope or not, it is inevitable that at some point in the future a member of the Latin American, or even Asian or African clergy could take up office in the Papacy. These areas of the world will demand representation in the church and the leading clergy may will give them representation in order to bring greater unity and prosperity to the Catholic Church.
The establishment of the first Native American saint seems to indicate the future of the Catholic Church, in which power and progress within the Church shift to new areas of the world, such as Latin America, or to non-traditional countries, such as the USA or Nigeria. For the Catholic Church to progress in the modern world, it must look back to these pioneering saints who lived on Catholicism’s frontiers. They must explore new frontiers, encourage the growth of new and existing frontier groups and develop the powerful national churches, that exist in all four corners of the Earth.