TORONTO - Cardinal Marc Ouellet would make history if he were to become the first pope who hails from Canada, but experts suggest his appointment to the highest office in the Catholic Church would not have a significant impact on his homeland.
Ouellet's election would lack the political significance that marked former Pope John Paul II`s promotion to pontiff, while religious divisions at home would prevent him from having a widespread influence on the country's Catholic community, they said.
Ouellet's effect on Canada, they suggested, would more closely resemble the muted impact former Pope Benedict XVI had on his home country of Germany.
Mark McGowan, religious studies professor at the University of Toronto, said Ouellet's elevation to the papacy would likely result in a surge of general patriotism, but would not do much to rekindle religious fervour in an increasingly secular country.
"We'd feel all the pride of Canadians seeing one of our own in a position of prominence internationally, but I don't think it's going to make much difference in terms of the way in which Canadian Catholics behave," he said in a telephone interview.
McGowan predicted the lack of influence would be most strikingly demonstrated, paradoxically, in Ouellet's home province of Quebec.
Despite the fact that most residents still identify as Catholic, McGowan said the number of those actively practicing the religion in the province has plummeted from nearly 90 per cent in the early 1960s to less than 10 per cent today.
It would take more than a single person to reverse such a tide, he said, even if that person would be among the most powerful religious leaders in the world.
"It's going to take an attitude. It's going to take a complete rethinking of the way in which religion is part of Quebec culture," he said. "Right now, it's essentially a historic artifact."
The cultural significance of Catholicism was a key part of why John Paul became a revered figure in his homeland of Poland, experts said, adding that his popularity had little to do with his status as the first non-Italian pontiff in modern times.
Peter Meehan, Catholic historian at Toronto's Seneca College, said John Paul`s election in 1978 represented nothing less than a triumph over communism, since the Church had come to be a dissenting voice in the country's political landscape.
John Paul's tenure as pontiff revitalized religious activity throughout the country and helped put Poland on the global map, he said, adding a similar but more subtle phenomenon may be possible for Canada if Ouellet is chosen in the current papal conclave.
Canadians have a long, if unsung, tradition of holding sway in Vatican affairs, he said. Naming a Canadian to the highest post could be a way of recognizing those contributions while signalling a spirit of co-operation from an institution known for its fractious international relations, he said.
"We're not seen as aggressive, we're seen as bridge-builders," Meehan said of Canadians. "I think this would go a long way to encouraging that sense of Canadians being well-received internationally."
Benedict's papacy was originally heralded with enthusiasm in Germany, but experts suggested he had little lasting influence on religious life in that country.
McGowan said his time as leader coincided with a sharp decline in the number of Germans identifying as Catholic, adding that the events are not necessarily connected.
McGowan does not believe devotees of the faith would flee the fold under an Ouellet papacy, adding the cardinal has a reputation for being able to engage with younger believers.
His traditional take on tenets of the religion may also endear Ouellet to English Catholics who often hold less progressive attitudes than their French counterparts, he added.
But Canada's diversity nearly ensures that Ouellet would become a polarizing figure, McGowan said, adding such a person has little opportunity to gain universal influence.
"There will be half the world swearing by him and half the world swearing at him," he said.
Black smoke billowed Tuesday from a special chimney installed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, indicating the 115 cardinals tasked with choosing the next pope had not yet reached a decision.
The election of the new pontiff will be signalled by a puff of white smoke.