By Mark I. Pinsky, USA TODAY
ORLANDO - Over the millennia, innovation has not been a hallmark of the Vatican and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church -- especially when it comes to choosing a CEO. The overwhelming majority of pontiffs have been Italian cardinals.
True, resigning Pope Benedict XVI is German, and his predecessor John Paul II, was a Pole. But considering historical precedent, the odds favor a return to tradition, such as Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, or Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister.
On the other hand, if church leaders at the upcoming Conclave, acknowledging what is probably an irreversible membership decline in Europe, opt to look to the future and growth potential, they might turn their eyes to the Third World -- Africa, Asia or Latin America. Someone such as Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, archbishop of Brasilia, or Cardinal Jorge Marion Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aries, ethnically Italian and reportedly the runner-up to Ratzinger in the last round of voting.
And yet, when the cardinals gather in Rome to select a pope for the 21th century, they might consider a longshot, an American such as Miami's Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
Catholics make 24% of Americans who are affiliated with a religion, the largest denomination in the U.S., according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But these and other studies also indicate that without the recent influx of immigrants, primarily from Latin and Asian countries, the trend line for the Catholic Church would be almost identical to other mainline denominations, which are both declining in number and aging. An American pope could reverse that trend and help revive the faith in the industrialized and industrializing world.
If a papal prospect could be ordered from a catalogue, Wenski would be an excellent prospect. Although not yet a cardinal -- not a requirement for a papal candidate -- he's about the right age, 62, and vigorous -- famous for tooling around Florida on his motorcycle, including the upcoming "Poker Run" to benefit Catholic Charities. More importantly, he rose to bishop as an urban parish priest, untouched by the clergy sex abuse scandal that many believe has wounded the church.
Wenski, a Florida native, was appointed bishop of Orlando by John Paul II, and is largely -- almost eerily -- cast in that pope's mold. He is the child and grandchild of Polish immigrants, the son of a house painter. In addition to Polish, the archbishop has made himself a linguist, speaking fluent Spanish, Haitian Creole and Filipino Tagalog, among other languages. His homily at the recent "Migration Mass" was titled "We Have Nothing to Fear from Diversity." He was elevated to archbishop by Benedict.
Doctrinally conservative on issues such as abortion and stem cell research, he is extremely liberal and outspoken on immigration, asylum and refugees. He is against the death penalty and opposed the Iraq war -- neither position popular among Catholics in the Sunbelt. Angering some in Miami's exile community, Wenski has also been a leader in reaching out to the Catholic community of Cuba -- and criticizing the U.S. economic embargo, while at the same time speaking out against Marxism on the island.
However, Wenski is no outsider. He has held high-level posts with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When he was bishop of Orlando, he was extremely ecumenical, making common and public cause with other clergy and, in the process, leaving a deep impression on both rabbis to mega-church pastors.
"In a world where communal responsibility is on the decline for the disenfranchised, Bishop Wenski is a champion who could turn this around," said Rabbi Steven Engel, chairman of the Orlando Board of Rabbis, who has worked with Wenski.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church, an evangelical congregation, agreed, calling Wenski "a brilliant, natural leader who is respected by all who know him."
"I have travelled with him internationally to work on Islamic-U.S. relations," Hunter said. He is a world leader, speaking many languages and understanding many cultures. He is the finest the U.S. has to offer, a faithful leader would help lead the church into the future."
Wenski may be just what the Catholic Church needs at this troubled time.
"As I listened to the various experts on who would be a possible successor to Pope Benedict, I thought about archbishop Thomas Wenski," said Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
Religion writer Mark I. Pinsky has covered Bishop Wenski for the Orlando Sentinel.
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