AN Australian priest is being touted as a contender for one of the top posts in the Catholic Church -- the superior-general of the Jesuits, commonly known as the "black pope".
Mark Raper, the Provincial of the Australian Jesuits, is believed to be among the favoured replacements for outgoing black pope Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who is standing aside after 25 years as global leader of the religious order.
Father Raper, who was international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service from 1990 to 2000, is in Rome ahead of this week's General Congregation, a meeting of 226 delegates from the order's geographical "provinces" around the world.
When contacted by The Australian last night, Father Raper said he had been advised not to comment about the coming election.
Asked if he was aware of the speculation that he was a frontrunner for the job, he said: "There's about 19,000 candidates for the position. Every Jesuit who has taken the vows is a candidate."
Father Raper also refused to confirm that he would accept the position if chosen. "I'm sorry, I'm not able to say anything about that."
The election of a black pope requires a three-quarter majority of delegates. It is expected that the new superior-general will be appointed by next week.
The Jesuits are the largest clerical order in the Church.
However, their numbers have dropped in recent years, with about 19,000 members worldwide, down from a peak of 36,000 in the 1960s.
A recent Time magazine article described Father Raper as being on "the insider's list". It also speculated the Jesuits could elect their first leader from Asia, naming Lisbert D'Sousa of India.
Another candidate mentioned was Italy's Federico Lombardi, the current papal spokesman and longtime head of Vatican radio and television channels.
Voting takes place only after four days of what in Latin is called "murmuratio" or private discussions among delegates.
"Anyone showing any sign of ambition is automatically disqualified. Then, after a prayer to the Holy Spirit and oath of allegiance, the voting is carried out with secret written ballots," the article said.
And from a Jesuit site:
Mark Raper SJ, Australian Provincial
Mark Raper was founding Director in 1974 of Asian Bureau Australia, the forerunner of Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre, and a board member of Caritas Australia (then ACR) from 1973 to 1982.
From 1982 he was the first Director for Asia and the Pacific of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and from 1990 to 2000 he was International Director of JRS, an international Catholic agency now at work in over 50 countries.
In 2001 he held a Visiting Chair in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC and was named a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia for his service to refugees.
He received the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) 2004 Human Rights Award, in recognition of his thirty years' commitment to the advancement of human rights.
He has been Provincial of the Jesuits for Australia and New Zealand since 10 December 2002.See also: Provincial’s Talks.