Looking For The African Wojtyla: Four Scenarios For The First Black Pope

Benedict XVI himself said Africa deserves to be considered for the papacy.

Robert Sarah's profile is "one of the most ideal for the papacy"
Robert Sarah's profile is "one of the most ideal for the papacy"
Giacomo Galeazzi

VATICAN CITY - Ghana's Peter Turkson, Guinea's Robert Sarah, South Africa's Wilfred Napier, and the Congolese Monsengwo Pasinya: Africa finally offers four names of real possibilities to fill the shoes of St. Peter.

However, in the conclave, Africa's strength can be measured more by the quality of eligible candidates then the quantity of voters (only 11 compared to the 60 coming from Europe and 33 from the Americas).

"Sarah’s profile is one of the most ideal for the papacy: he combines both pastoral experience in his own country and at the international Curia," says Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews, the agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

Sarah was a bishop in Africa, prisoner of war and he is now in his second Vatican posting as President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. He has stepped into the role long filled by French Cardinal Roger Etchegeray as "the man of the impossible papal missions" in the diplomatic and humanitarian field: from Lebanon to Southeast Asia. He has also gained U.S. President Barack Obama’s personal esteem.

In other words, he is a "black Wojtyla" (Pope John Paul II's birthname was Karol Wojtyla) who can combine foreign and curial affairs, and also has an open ear the White House, just as the spiritual father of the Solidarity movement did in 1978. Sarah could be the "outsider" who the cardinals turn to if the frontrunners lose momentum in the early voting.

Two years ago he captivated everyone's attention at the Rimini Meeting in northern Italy, run by the influential lay group Communion and Liberation, thanks to his communication skills and charisma. Still, there may be some in the old guard of the Church hierarchy hesitant to turn to the "young" Church of the so-called dark continent: some fear the cardinals will divide off by ethnicity and operate without true clarity.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, destined to be Benedict XVI, didn’t think the same way in 2004 when he told a German television: "We are ready for a black pope." During his travels in Africa, he described it as "the spiritual lung of the world." Therefore, the hypothesis is plausible.

There are some historians who say the election of a black pope would not truly be unprecedented. Some say Gelasius I, Pope from 492 to 496, was from North Africa and had "skin as dark as coal," though most seem to agree that he was "romanus natus."

Prophecies and realities

Today, those pulling for the first black pope span the globe. There are some African-Americans looking forward to a non-European pope, but neither New York's Timothy Dolan nor Boston's Sean O'Malley. In the Bronx, a group of Ghanian Catholics prays for the conclave to elect Turkson, their compatriot. "It would be very meaningful", says Ursulu Essifie of the Church of St. Margaret Mary in Mont Hope, visited by the cardinal in 2005: "He knows how to be among the people."

Massimo Introvigne, who is the (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) OSCE representative against discrimination of Christians around the world, says the current situation in the Church "plays in favor" of a black pope because "if Catholicism is growing, it is thanks to the African continent where Christians are more numerous than Muslims."

The “Prophecy of the Popes” lists 112 short phrases in Latin, which are supposed to describe all the popes from Celestine II (elected in 1143), until a Pope who has yet to come, described in the prophecy as "Peter, the Roman," and whose pontificate will end with the destruction of Rome in the Last Judgment.

Pursuant to this list, the last pope will arrive after the one called "de gloria olivae", which is Benedict XVI according to the chronology. But, a lost prophecy says that between Benedict XVI and the last pope, there should be a penultimate pope: a "caput nigrum", which means a pope with dark skin. At the Holy Synod for Africa, Turkson said: "There is no reason why the Church shouldn’t have a black pope one day. After all, we have other notable examples (Kofi Annan, Barack Obama), and when a priest is ordained, this also includes the possibility that he could become a bishop or pope in the future. "

The white smoke carries space for any possibility, even an unexpected name, even an African. Back in 1978, no one could have predicted the arrival of John Paul II, a pope who came from "far away." Now after Eastern Europe, the distant surprise could come up from the South.

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