COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – 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.
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.
Although there are many strikes against a Ranjith's 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 in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. "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.
He faces further questions for comments that appear sympathetic to late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who split from Rome over interpretation of reforms from the 1962-5 Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, which revolutionized the church's relations with Jews and allowed for the celebration of Mass in languages other than Latin. In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent.
The Vatican is now engaged in talks with a Lefebvre-founded breakaway group, the Society of St. Pius X, on whether to return to papal control.
Ranjith was born to a large family in central Sri Lanka and was ordained by Pope Paul VI at St. Peter's Basilica in 1975. After further studies in Rome and Jerusalem, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Colombo and later appointed first bishop of the newly created diocese of Ratnapura, central region known for gem mining.
In 1985, he founded the Colombo archdiocese's social service arm, which focused on helping the poor and marginalized. He also staked out a reputation as strict adherent to church traditions.
Ranjith led a commission in the 1990s that denounced the views of Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya, claiming he supported reforms such as the ordination of women. Ranjith was backed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Benedict XVI. Balasuriya was temporarily excommunicated and died in January.
Ranjith went on to become the Vatican ambassador, or nuncio, to Indonesia and East Timor — a delicate role especially given rising pressures in the region on non-Muslims by Islamic extremists. He also became a front-line emissary for Catholic assistance after the December 2004 tsunami.
The newly named Benedict brought Ranjith back to the Vatican as the No. 2 in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which oversees issues on the liturgy. He was appointed archbishop of Colombo in 2009 and was thrust into another mediation role: Efforts to end a quarter-century civil war between the government, controlled by the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, and the now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.
At the end of the war in 2009, he was a leading voice urging the government to quickly resettle civilians held in military-run camps. He also appeared before the country's Reconciliation Commission with suggestions to promote harmony between the Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities.
"He is a very balanced pastor, a shepherd," said the Rev. Benedict Joseph, spokesman for the Colombo archdiocese. "He always tried to closer and closer to the people."