FOREIGN DISPATCH: The case for an African pope

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest surviving churches and is considered the only precolonial Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest surviving churches and is considered the only precolonial Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa. // Creative Commons

This is the latest piece in Kiki Ochieng’s WKND BLOG column, exploring matters of political and international import beyond polls and borders. Watch her introduction to her writing series and focus here.

Even as Western churches close their doors in the face of rising budget concerns, fewer men join the priesthood and we see more empty pews, Christianity continues to thrive in regions like Latin America and Africa.

Latin Americans and Africans make up over half of the global population of Catholics in the world today. The African brand of Christianity, in particular, appears to attract many because of the syncretism of African culture and dynamism of church services. In populations seeking answers to phenomena like poverty, war and disease, Christianity is an attractive prospect. In a 2011 visit to Benin, Pope Benedict XVI referred to Africa as “an immense spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.” In the eyes of the most recent pope, Africa is the new frontier of Christianity — the place that will renew global faith.

So considering that perception and Pope Benedict’s recent announcement of his retirement, the time appears ripe for a sub-Saharan African pope. (The call for an African pope is a bit of a misnomer, as three popes from the earlier days of the church were of Berber origin). Long gone are the days of Eurocentric Catholicism. Nowadays, the church also must cope with the growing waves of evangelism as well as continual interaction with other major religions like Islam. A pope from sub-Saharan Africa might be adept at conquering these new challenges.

The rapid growth of Catholicism in Africa suggests that Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson and Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze may be top contenders when the papal conclave, the meeting of the College of Cardinals, convenes at the end of the month to elect the new pontiff.

Still, despite the calls for an African pope from the developing world, some church scholars claim that the possibility may be unlikely considering the distribution of cardinals is heavily concentrated in Europe. The 118 cardinals who will choose the new pope are also in running for the position. And, considering the global outlook of the papacy, nationality may not figure high in the conclave decision. With Pope Benedict’s resignation, the first in over 600 years, linked to age, the new pope will need to be healthy and young enough to fulfill his papacy. Thus, age may outweigh other considerations like nationality in determining succession.

However, bearing in mind the cloud of secrecy that shrouds the conclave, we may never know the exact factors that lead to the ultimate decision. All we can be certain about is that the new pope must be prepared to battle the issues facing the Catholic Church in the modern era.

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