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Catholic Cardinals Ethnically, Internationally Diverse

Nine of the 117 cardinals who will be taking part in the Vatican Conclave that will elect the next head of the Roman Catholic Church are seen in these file photos
After Pope John Paul II is finally laid to rest, the Catholic Church will turn to the task of choosing his successor. The pope is always chosen by the church's most senior prelates, meeting as a body. The College of Cardinals has become a far more diverse group under the pontificate of John Paul the Second than under his predecessors.

In the rigid hierarchy of the Catholic Church, cardinals are second only to the pope in seniority and authority. It is for that reason they are dubbed princes of the church. They run the vast Vatican bureaucracy. And, for nearly 800 years, the task of electing a pope has been the sole provenance of the College of Cardinals.

There are now 117 cardinals who can be cardinal electors, that is, eligible to enter the secret conclave that will choose the next pope. Under rules promulgated by the late Pope John Paul the Second, cardinals over 80 years old are barred from participating.

Monsignor Bryan Ferme, dean of the school of canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington, says the makeup of the College of Cardinals has changed enormously in recent years under the late pope.

"Whereas the Italians with 20 cardinal electors are the largest single group, there are over 24 electors from Latin America, and, in fact, from the United States of America, there are 11 electors. And that's not to take into account cardinals throughout Asia in Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and so on. So it has been a tremendous internationalization of the college," he says.

There was a time when this exclusive ecclesiastical club was dominated by Italians, in part because Italian cardinals not only had the biggest bloc of cardinals, but also because they controlled the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy. But the Italian stranglehold was broken in 1978 when Pope John Paul II became the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years.

Christopher Bellitto, assistant professor of history at Kean University and a church historian, says John Paul II accelerated a process of opening up the College of Cardinals begun by one of his predecessors.

"It was Paul the Sixth, elected in 1963, who realized it is a brave new world and so we need a brave new college of cardinals,” he notes. “So he began to appoint cardinals from countries that had never had cardinals before. And it is John Paul II who has turned that up to the tenth degree."

The late pope not only peppered dioceses around the world with new cardinals, but also gave control of many of the key Vatican offices to non-Italian and non-Western cardinals. Mr. Bellitto says that was an important change.

"About a quarter of the College of Cardinals are Curial cardinals, that is, they spend most of their time permanently appointed to some office in the Vatican,” he adds. “But many more of them are non-Italians, and that again dates back to Paul the Sixth. So saying someone's a Curial cardinal is not the same thing as saying someone is Italian."

This internationalization of the College of Cardinals is likely, analysts say, to have an enormous impact on the papal voting. Latin American cardinals, for example, may want a pope more willing to address issues like poverty, while cardinals from Africa may look for a candidate who can deal with poverty and relations with the Islamic world.

Monsignor Ferme says the cardinals will bring their own regional preoccupations into the conclave.

"I think all the electors come with their own particular ecclesiastical baggage, wherever they come from,” he adds. “But on the other hand, they will, I think, very much take into account the particular preoccupations of Latin America, of Africa, of Asia, of Europe, of North America. Now some will seem more important to them in the universal picture than perhaps others. And that's where the movement in terms of them voting will occur."

Analysts say many of the cardinals entering the upcoming conclave are not well acquainted with each other personally and know each other more by reputation than anything else. At the last consistory, the meeting of cardinals at which the pope announced new princes of the church, the cardinals had stickers announcing, “Hello, my name is cardinal so-and-so” affixed to their distinctive bright red sashes.