Ash Wendesday: Pope’s last major liturgical event

Today is Ash Wednesday. What are you giving up for Lent?

I have one friend who is giving up coffee and another who departed Facebook for 40 days. I am always intrigued by what people choose to go without during this time of year.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI will do as he has since 2006 — distribute ashes to the faithful as Lent begins.

Pope Benedict dons a sombrero during this 2012 trip to Mexico. (The Associated Press)

But this will be the last major liturgical event of his time as the pontiff. By the end of these days of devotion, a different pope will celebrate Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

As USA Today reports, when Benedict retires at 8 p.m. Feb. 28, the Vatican will methodically erase the symbols of his papacy and any fears — or hopes — that he’ll still be seen as the voice of the church during or after the election for his successor.

“Pope Benedict will surely say absolutely nothing about the process of the election and not intervene in any way in the process,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference Tuesday, according to Catholic News Service.

Meanwhile, “I don’t know” was the most common response to questions yesterday during a Vatican press conference.

While some are speculating on a surprise choice, perhaps even an African pope, a nod to the Catholic Church’s explosive growth on that continent, Stephen Prothero says don’t bet on it.

Prothero discusses some of the candidates, but doesn’t expect any of them to be named the 266th pope:

If you crunch the numbers, it’s astonishing that we have not yet had a Latin American pope. Today roughly 41% of all Catholics hail from Latin America. And half of all Catholics under age 40 are from Latin America.

In this key region (which accounts for 16% of cardinal electors), possible papal candidates include Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Buenos Aires), who may have been the runner-up in the last papal conclave. But he is 75, and given Benedict’s abrupt retirement for (among other things) health reasons, the College of Cardinals might well want to find someone younger.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri (age 69), an Italian-Argentinian spearheading the Vatican department for Eastern Churches, is more likely. He has also been the Vatican’s chief of staff.

Another Latin American possibility is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maridiaga (age 70) of Honduras, a rising star in the region who is known as a powerful speaker with a strong commitment to social justice.

Odilo Pedro Scherer (age 63) may be Latin America’s strongest candidate. As the archbishop of Sao Paolo, Brazil, he runs the largest diocese in Latin America. But like every other Latin American candidate, he will be hurt by the fact that Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant churches are booming there.

Africa accounts for more than 16% of Catholics worldwide, but this region is Catholicizing quickly.

In Ghana, Peter Appiah Turkson (age 64) is often mentioned as the African to beat. Like Benedict, he is an academic and a conservative. He is well-known for opposing the use of condoms to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. A TV star in his homeland, Turkson is said to have the people’s touch that made Pope John Paul II so popular.

Another widely discussed African is Francis Arinze (age 72) of Nigeria. While leading the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, he became a point person for Catholic conversations with Islam, but he is widely seen as conservative.

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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