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The Catholic Church is a global church. And for the 1.2 billion adherents to the faith worldwide, it is a decisive moment. The faithful are looking to a new pope to bring a time of healing — and better governance — to a church tarnished by scandal and deeply divided.


For a new pope, issues of a global church

With Africa, Asia and Latin America now representing two-thirds of the world's Catholics, many faithful want a more global pope.

ROME — As the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel Tuesday afternoon for the opening round of votes in the papal conclave, news coverage has framed two issues confronting the next pope: cleaning up a scandal-ridden Roman Curia, and forging durable reforms to halt the clergy sex abuse crisis.

But the reality of the global church is much larger than concerns bearing down on Princes of the Church, or social forces driving polarization of the church in Western countries, such as the priest shortage, celibacy, women’s ordination and gay rights.

Tougher issues loom in large swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America, southern nations where 70 percent of the world’s Catholics live. A huge demographic shift since 1900 has seen the Catholic population in the Western democracies fall from 70 percent to less than a third of the global church.       

In many countries where the church is surging, at least numerically, survival is a core concern: access to clean water, passable roads, health care, education and safety for women and children.      

Faith is a rudder of hope in many of the world’s broken places, where poverty and conflict mean the church is often the only functioning institution apart from the military. Situations like that can put bishops, by default, into opposition status with the military.     

“The Catholic Church plays an important role in helping Kenya find a unifying thread.”
~Sister Fernanda Cristinelli

Caritas Internationalis, under Vatican auspices, is a global confederation of 165 Catholic organizations focused on development and rapid response to emergencies. In 2010, Caritas raised 2.2 billion euro and spent 1.2 billion on emergency relief, the rest on development projects. Caritas raises money on a rolling basis when regions collapse.       

A February appeal for $635,000 was a response to a plea from the ten bishops of Central African Republic in a horrific civil war, who wrote, “People in these areas are hostage. They live in fear, they flee into the bush and they abandon their fields. The sick are without care, hospitals are closed or have been completely destroyed and schools have been pillaged.

Comboni Missionary Sister Fernanda Cristinelli, 51, left her native Italy for a life of gospel witness across two decades in East Africa. In northern Uganda, the missionaries had six houses where three to four sisters lived among the Karamojong, a semi-nomadic warrior people with a deep history of cattle rustling. 

“Women and children going to pick firewood paid the price of retaliatory raids,” she said in a quiet hotel lobby in Rome. Dealing with people whose traditional religions made them resistant to Catholicism “was a challenge — you have to confront your faith.

The Comboni sisters ran schools and hospitals under two Ugandan dioceses. Cristinelli spent a decade teaching illiterate women to read “in Christian homes, basing their work around the gospel,” she explained. “Village warfare over cattle rustling, continuous revenge, was a spiral we tried to break.”

Results of conflict-resolution strategies — in which she later did graduate work in England — were incremental. But “women who hated each other did learn to change. Their families gave up revenge by women saying they want their children not to hear gunfire. Songs, dramas, stories created a fabric of cultural resistance….We planted those seeds by creating spaces for women.”          

Cristinelli then spent eight years in Nairobi. The church, which began there about 1900, was a vibrant if minority presence. She taught young women who joined the Comboni. Less than half became sisters. For an Italian order with 1400 women, of whom 400 are under age 50, the Comboni Missionaries (who also have a separate section of men) show accelerated growth compared to many American communities of graying sisters and few young women.       

Kenya’s elections saw Uhuru Kenyatta narrowly win the presidency, despite an International Criminal Court indictment for his alleged role in fomenting widespread violence in elections of 2007, evidence "that people still vote on ethnic lines,” said Cristinelli.

“The Catholic Church plays an important role in helping Kenya find a unifying thread," she continued. "It takes a long time for a country to journey into cohesion. Look at my society. Italy has lots of forces that want to pull us apart — a different language of instability than ‘ethnic.’”     

Her major work today is in helping young women in Italy escape forced