As the world mourns the passing of Pope John Paul II it is natural to speculate about who his successor might be. Reflection on John Paul II's legacy always occasions admiration for the prescience or serendipity that brought him, the first non-Italian pope in centuries, to the Vatican throne at the historical moment he arrived. John Paul II was nothing if not a man of his era, it would be difficult to imagine a pontiff better equipped to confront (and facilitate) the last decade of the Cold War and the fall of Communism.
As someone standing outside the Catholic church with a purely "academic" interest in the disputations of the College of Cardinals I am inclined to ask, "what type of pope could exert the same kind of historic influence as John Paul II?" Many have speculated that the next pope will be drawn from among the Catholic clergy of the world beyond Europe and North America. The ascension of an African, Asian, or Latin American pope would almost certainly create an impact that would influence the future long-term direction of world culture and society.
In my view, the boldest choice the Catholic leadership could make, one that would exert the same kind of profound shock to the larger global order as that of John Paul II, would be a pope of Chinese nationality. The state of Christianity in the People's Republic of China right now is one of intense dynamism and volatility. Statistics are very hard to assess, but all indications are that various Christian doctrines are more popular now than they have been at any previous time in Chinese history- as many as 80 million Chinese citizens may have joined various church groups throughout China. Many of these churches are doctrinally quite radical- one, for example, is led by a living Chinese woman who claims to be the current incarnation of Jesus Christ. I think that speculation about the imminent Christianization of China is premature, but it would seem obvious that many Chinese citizens are turning to Christianity out of some sort of intrinsic appeal, perhaps as an expression of discontent with the current social or political order in which they live.
The place and role of the Catholic church in this environment is one full of both peril and potential. As of now the Chinese government acknowledges a community of 5 million Catholics organized into 500 dioces throughout China. However, these "Catholic" congregations are not, by law, allowed to have contact with or take direction from the Vatican. The "openess" policies of the Chinese Communist Party are not yet elastic enough to allow the free and unimpeded operation of religious organizations, especially one with the ecumenical mission of the Catholic Church. Believing Catholics are placed in a precarious position in China, as to participate in the sacraments of China's official church is a violation of Catholic dogma, whereas to accept the ministrations of priests ordained by the Vatican is a political crime punishable, in many cases, by death. A "secret Church" of Vatican-ordained priests is known to shadow the official Church in China- its priests are among the groups most prone to execution under the PRC's penal law.
In this climate the selection of a Chinese pope would, I surmise, hit Beijing like an earthquake. It would pose a fundamental challenge to the structuring principles of PRC state and society, and would force (perhaps violently) a reworking of Beijing's relations not only with the Vatican but with the world at large. I could not say whether the ultimate outcome of such a crisis would be unequivocally positive, either for the people of China or the global Catholic community at large, and for this reason such an event is perhaps not likely. It is certain, however, that the ascension of a Chinese priest to the throne of St. Peter would have a historical impact equivalent to that of the late John Paul II. Perhaps such a papacy would only be possible once the world has changed sufficiently to "catch up with history."