12 Feb 2013

Vatican 2.0: the search for a 21st century leader

Not yet being a cardinal, I cannot say if you can smile your way to the top job of Pope. But if you can, the constantly beaming and giggling Ghanian Cardinal Peter Turkson surely is a shoo-in.

Away from the Vatican in a cluster of unassuming offices, I went to speak to him today. No flunkeys, no hangers-on, no purple either, just the grey suit and clerical collar, thank you. And Cardinal Pete’s happy to chat on and off camera about, well, anything. Warm and engaging from the off.

Does the 64-year-old fancy it then – being the first African Pope in centuries?

He laughs even more and says: “Well, there’s no doubt it would be a completely life-changing experience.”

But he’s deft – soon leaving himself aside to say: “What matters now is leadership and a Pope who is capable of speaking beyond the walls of the church.”

He sums up past two pontiffs – charismatic John-Paul II and bookish, academic Benedict XVI in one piercing aphorism:

“People would come to St Peter’s to see John Paul II. They come to hear Benedict XVI.”

Recognition that with the awful truth laid bare by the “Vatileaks” scandal – internal emails depicting a Vatican riven by rivalry, powerbases and intrigue – frankly, the Catholic church has now to get out there a bit, in the eyes of many.

“Speaking to secular world” is a phrase you hear a lot in Rome today as the faithful fear a church that might speak too much to itself in many parts of the globe.

“It’s true – we have to speak to the secular world,” Fox News reporter turned Vatican adviser Greg Burke tells me.

“Look – the cardinals elected a Pope at 78 years old and they couldn’t have expected another John Paul II. Who knows what now? The Holy Spirit will guide us, but, yes, a more evangelical, younger, ‘take the message to the streets’ approach is entirely possible.”

Talk to pilgrims wandering around in between the Roman showers today and that is the fundamental message they convey from around the world.

Praise for Pope Benedict’s learning, thought, intellectualism and humility – but praise too for what many see as new-found practicality that in the 21st century this isn’t the calling for a man in his mid-80s.

They see a church in need of re-energising and a Pope who now deserves the peace of retirement, reading, and prayer.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter

Tweets by @alextomo