It may be hard to believe, but in some sense I still do consider myself Catholic. And like a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, I am following the news of Pope John Paul II's very poor health.
He is said to be near death and so, while thousands are praying for him, people are also speculating about who the next pontiff will be. Will he be Italian or "foreign"? Will he be conservative or liberal? Will he be a uniter or a divider? [February 2009 update: the original Yahoo! News link in this paragraph is dead, but here's a Wall Street Journal article from 2002, three years earlier, about future pope speculations.]
A few years ago, I had heard some serious musings that the next pope could be a non-European altogether. Let's not forget, it was a major step to elect a non-Italian to the papacy, so the Polish Pope may have been about as much shake-up as the Church wants for the next century.
On the other hand, choosing a non-European pope may be a way to galvanize Catholics around the world. After all the priest sex abuse scandals, American Catholics sure could use a boost. Some have also cited a Nigerian, and a long time ago I had heard that the cardinals of the Philippines and Korea would be in the running.
Some in the Indian media are suggesting the cardinal of India as a possibility. This has the added bit of interest -- to me at least -- that the next pope might actually be able to speak Korean.
Short of a Korean cardinal being chosen, this would be the biggest way to galvanize Catholics in Korea, where the faith has a strong but often quiet following. It could also bode well for religious tolerance, since Korea, with its healthy mix of Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and followers of traditional other faiths, traditional beliefs, or no religion, is in many ways a model of religious tolerance.
Yes, you heard me right. Despite the fact that as recently as the 19th century Catholics were being martyred for their faith, Korea in its post-War period has shown a high degree of religious tolerance, especially for a country with such religious plurality. The major faiths are all recognized in the list of official holidays, the government tries hard not to favor one religion over another, and most important, people of all religions liberally interact socially with people of other faiths, including a high degree of interfaith marriages.
How true is this even in a constitutionally religiously tolerant nation like the US, where anti-Semitism still rears its ugly head and anti-Muslim sentiment is at an all-time high? Ireland has a mix of Catholics and Protestants, and they are killing each other for it. The same is true in the similarly religiously plural former Yugoslavia, where the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats are essentially the same ethnic group but divided by religion (being Muslim, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively).
I am not saying Korea is problem-free. Some fundamentalist groups are beginning to use employ some divisive discourse, and every now and then you get a group of Protestants chopping down the changsŭng that are traditionally found at the entrance to villages but also, in modern times, in parks, universities, buildings, etc. It's a delicate balance, yes, but things are still pretty good here overall.
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