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RELIGION: Worried Malaysians Hope for a Transformation in New Pope

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Apr 24 2005 (IPS) - While Pope Benedict XVI, previously the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, formally begins his pontificate on Sunday after being inaugurated in an open-air mass celebrated in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, certain Malaysian Catholic activists and clergy are worried that the church under the new pope would become more insular and clamp down on movements working with the poor.

”My initial reaction was one of shock, rather than exclaiming ‘Thanks be to God’,” said Catherine, a church worker involved in poverty issues who only wanted to be identified by her first name.

”I fear the church has become polarised. On the one hand, you have all these Christians working among the poor and who need the support of the church. And on the other, you are trying to return to orthodoxy,” she told IPS referring to Ratzinger’s formal inauguration three weeks after the death of his predecessor, John Paul II.

The church in Asia needs to develop the themes that Pope John Paul II had spoken about such as the impact of globalisation on Third World countries, she said. ”I hope the new pope realises that the church needs to move in the direction of acting in solidarity with the poor and the marginalised.”

Ratzinger, chief of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is unpopular with large sections of the Church for his anti-modernist positions and for methodically persecuting and silencing dissenters. He is also firmly opposed to birth control, supports the celibacy of the priesthood, and is against the ordination of women.

The new pope has said that anyone who supports the ”grave sins” of abortion and euthanasia should be denied Communion.

But despite her concern, Catherine said she accepted the decision of the church to elect Ratzinger ”in faith.”

University lecturer and political scientist Andrew Aeria, a Catholic, feels that the choice of Ratzinger as pope was an indication of how out of touch the cardinals, bishops and clergy of the Catholic Church are from the realities of a suffering Third World.

In choosing Ratzinger, ”they have chosen to ignore the reality of how divisive he has been in the church to ordinary struggling Catholics let alone liberal progressive Catholics – who, despite what the Vatican says about them, cannot be denied their baptismal rights.”

He said in an interview it appeared that the cardinals had not paid much heed to the reality of the Third World such as deep poverty and socio-economic inequalities, political suppression of human rights and the denial of democracy, AIDS and the high levels of transmission of HIV. He also pointed to the growing threat of fundamentalism from all religions (including Catholicism) to the detriment of genuine and respectful inter-religious dialogue.

”Nor were the Cardinals cognizant of the fact of Catholic demographics, which shows the majority of Catholics (and practising ones at that) as being resident in the Third World,” said the university lecturer. Aeria regards Pope John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, which ushered in sweeping church reforms, as a greater pope than John Paul II.

The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was an Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965.

For Catholics, the most visible results were changes in how church sacraments were practiced, the use of vernacular languages for the mass, and a new attitude towards non-Catholics.

However, the London-based Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, which does extensive aid work in developing countries, welcomed Ratzinger’s election and said it hoped the new pope would work tirelessly to fight for the poorest of the poor, the sick and the stigmatised.

”We must be ready to listen to the needs of the developing world and realise that our faith challenges us to work for a world in which the dignity of every individual is respected and the voice of the poor is heard and listened to,” said its director Chris Bain in a statement. The challenge of solidarity with the poor is at the heart of the Christian faith, he asserted.

One Catholic aid worker said she hopes Pope Benedict XVI remembers the words of his namesake in the Church, Saint Benedict of Nursia, Italy, (480-543 AD), the founder of Western monasticism.

In his portrayal of the ideal abbot or leader in a monastery, St Benedict, who was known for his moderation and concern for the poor, had said: "Let him know that his duty is rather to profit his brethren than to preside over them … Let him exalt mercy above judgment…”

St Benedict had also warned: ”And even in his corrections, he should act prudently and not go to excess, lest in seeking too eagerly to scrape off the rust he breaks the vessel.”

Nonetheless, the new pope has also an enigmatic side to him.

Malaysian Jerald Joseph, who is on the advisory team of the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (Pax Romana ICMICA) recalls the removal in 1997 of Sri Lankan priest-theologian, Father Tissa Balasuriya. Balasuriya had produced a text ‘Mary and Human Liberation’, which was deemed to have distorted the Church’s traditional teaching on Jesus’ mother.

The removal prompted participants at a human rights meeting in Bangkok to send a legal challenge to the Vatican asking the pope to review the order.

”It was Ratzinger who was instrumental in removing and, after one year, reinstating Tissa,” recalls Joseph. ‘That was for me the mark of what is even now more possible under Ratzinger as the pope.”

One Catholic priest in the diocese of Penang told IPS that the election of Ratzinger reflects the present state of the church: opting to remain in a safe, conservative position while knocking any hope of dialogue on controversial matters.

”Pope Benedict would be unwavering in the stands that maintain the integrity of the church. He would be a very strong leader in that sense,” he said. ”But I would rather he chart his own course in taking into consideration the present state of the church, reading the signs of the times, rather than to just carry on with what Pope John Paul II has already started.”

Some of these Catholics draw comfort from history in the election of Oscar Romero, regarded as a bookish, conservative, compromise candidate, as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. But when confronted with military-ruled El Salvador’s oppressive socio-political realities, Romero was transformed into an outspoken defender of the poor and the brutalized who would only be stopped by an assassin’s bullet three years later.

Activists here hope that Ratzinger himself may be similarly transformed.

”The Holy Spirit always works in strange and mysterious ways,” said Joseph. ”Ratzinger doesn’t seem to be in the flow (towards reforms) right now but I hope he proves me wrong.”

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