Pope Benedict XVI has startled the Roman Catholic world by announcing that he would be the first pontiff to resign in 700 years. The 85-year-old pope said he is stepping down at the end of February, citing his deteriorating level of energy.
The pope’s historic resignation raises the question of who his successor might be. And many Vatican watchers wonder whether the cardinals might select an African pope. They cite the fact that Catholicism, while waning as a religious force in Europe and North America, has been growing strongly in Africa and Asia.
That has immediately caused speculation on whether the Catholic Church might select from the ranks of senior, eligible African cardinals. One name mentioned is that of Cardinal Peter Turkson, the current president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who was born in Ghana and is 64 years old.
Another highly watched potential contender is Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is Nigerian. Arinze is Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments within the Catholic Church. He is a longtime cardinal who, at age 80, may seem too old for the position in the eyes of the College of Cardinals.
“The Catholic Church in Africa has grown enormously in the last century, by some 6,700 percent,” said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University and a scholar on the Vatican.
“The Catholic Church is booming in Africa and if there were any rationality, then the prospect of an African pope would be very high,” Jenkins said. “The College of Cardinals is overbalanced toward Europe and, more specifically, Italy. Down the road, it’s close to inevitable that there would be an African pope. If not this time, it will occur maybe next time.”
Pope Benedict, who is German, has been a strongly conservative pontiff who had to deal with the controversies over clerical sex abuse scandals. He was elected by the cardinals of the church in 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II.
A Vatican spokesman said that the pope will continue to perform his duties until Feb. 28 and that a successor would be selected by Easter, which is on March 31.
If an African pope is selected, it wouldn’t be the first time. According to “The Book of Pontiffs,” there were three popes from Africa. Pope St. Victor I was the first. He reigned from 186-197 A.D. as the 15th pope. Pope St. Militiades was the second pontiff from Africa. He reigned from 311-314 A.D. as the 32nd or 37th pope (there are conflicting accounts as to his place in the Papal line). The third African pope was Pope St. Gelasiu, who served from 492 A.D. until his death in 496 A.D.
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