Sri Lanka cardinal hews to tradition in papal race

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 7, 2013 at 8:25 pm •  Published: March 7, 2013
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — In one of his first appointments as pope, Benedict XVI picked a Sri Lankan archbishop to return to the Vatican for a top post overseeing the church's liturgy and rites.

The choice of Malcolm Ranjith in 2005 rewarded a strong voice of tradition — so rigid that some critics regard it even as backward-looking. And it came as the church increasingly grappled with a critical question for the future: How much innovation can be allowed to cater to developing world congregations with fast-growing flocks?

Ranjith faced a clash of priorities — guarding tradition versus pressure to reform. And in the debate he came mostly on the side of doing things the old way. But he was also guided by diplomatic finesse honed as a Vatican envoy nurturing sensitive relations between mostly Muslim Indonesia and the breakaway nation of predominantly Catholic East Timor.

Ranjith, who in 2010 was named Sri Lanka's second cardinal in history, now is being mentioned among the possible successors to Benedict if the conclave looks beyond Europe to acknowledge the shifting "southern" demographics of the church.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" — contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Malcolm Ranjith.

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Although there are many strikes against a Ranjith candidacy — Sri Lanka, for example, has just 1.3 million Catholics, less than half the population of Rome — the rising influence of the developing world helps keep the idea alive.

The other Asian papal prospect, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, has much more star power as the head prelate in the heavily Catholic Philippines. Yet to his advantage, Ranjith, at 65, is a decade older than Tagle, has Vatican experience and is seen as very much an ideological protege of Benedict. All of this could attract the attention of papal electors seeking both the bold statement of a non-European pope and the safety of someone not likely to challenge church orthodoxy.

"The Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith's leadership quality is fantastic, excellent, and very specially the sermons," said Vijitha Ariyaratna, who works at a Colombo church. "The homilies are down to earth, they are simplified. I really admire him."

Ranjith, however, has also earned detractors for his strong affinity for traditions in worship, such as the Latin Mass, that others have left behind.

In 2009, he banned lay deacons from preaching in the Colombo archdiocese and required that Holy Communion only be offered to those kneeling and the communion wafer placed directly on their tongue — a style that has been abandoned by many parishes in the West.

Ranjith also forbade priests from introducing elements from other religions into the Mass, which is increasingly common as the church in some areas looks to pay homage to indigenous or majority faiths through gestures such as music or dress.

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