The next pope?

It’s a subject Vatican-watchers never tire of — and John Allen in NCR has another name to add to the list, Fernando Filoni, who now heads the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples but who also served as nuncio in Iraq as the 2003 war began :

Filoni may not be a media star, but he does understand how the communication business works. Among other things, one of his degrees is from Rome’s Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali, a prestigious private secular institution, where he studied “techniques of public opinion,” specializing in journalism.

Filoni’s biography could also stir the world’s imagination, especially his record in Iraq.

At a time when all the other Western ambassadors fled for safety, not to mention U.N. officials and even many journalists, Filoni refused, saying he couldn’t abandon the local Catholic community or other suffering Iraqis.

“If the pastor flees in moments of difficulty,” he said, “the sheep are also lost.”

Though no fan of Saddam Hussein, Filoni had been an outspoken critic of the Western-imposed sanctions, saying “they hurt the people, not the regime.” He also opposed the U.S.-led invasion, and repeats his judgment in the 30 Giorni interview: “You can’t export democracy through war.”

Filoni remained in the country afterwards, as Christians found themselves primary targets amid rising chaos. He refused to adopt special security measures, wanting to face the same risks as locals who didn’t have access to guards and armored vehicles; he said his aim was to be seen “as an Iraqi, by the Iraqis.” That choice almost cost him dearly in February 2006, when a car bomb went off outside the nunciature, demolishing a garden wall and smashing window panes, but luckily leaving no one hurt.

As a coda to that episode, after the bomb went off, a Muslim contractor showed up at the nunciature with thirty workers to repair the damage, out of respect for the solidarity Filoni had shown.

Given that Iraq is a harrowing symbol of rising anti-Christian violence, Filoni is in a unique position to raise consciousness on the issue.

Naturally, you can’t be around as long as Filoni without drawing some criticism. Aside from mixed reviews for his record as substitute, some also wonder about his affection for the Neocatechumenate, a controversial Catholic movement born in Spain. Most basically, many people would probably say that Filoni’s natural habitat is behind the scenes, not out front.

Yet no one is likely to perfectly incarnate all the things the cardinals may want. The longer they look at Filoni, the more they might like what they see.

Read it all.