After Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation announcement this week, attention has turned to who will succeed him as head of the Roman Catholic Church, when he steps down at the end of the month, and now the names of African cardinals are popping up as possible papal contenders.
In Accra, the capital of the West African nation of Ghana, the Mary Mother of Good Council School is one of a number of respected Roman Catholic educational establishments overseen by the archdiocese and the Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra, Charles Palmer-Buckle. Trained as a priest at pontifical universities in Rome, the archbishop is upbeat about the continent’s contribution to the Catholic Church.
“The Pope himself said that he considered Africa the spiritual lungs of humanity,” Palmer-Buckle says, “which means that the Pope has a lot of expectation that Africa has something to offer humanity – to give humanity a good breath of life.”
With more than a 150 million Catholics in Africa and counting, the continent is the fastest growing region for Catholicism in the world. And global bookies are putting the odds on the next Catholic pontiff coming perhaps from Africa.
“Many people look to Africa, because that’s the place where the Church is growing and is very lively,” says Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of Inside The Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. “What we really need is someone who can deal with the problems of the Church, which are in Europe and the United States. So I think that argument is going to go on during the Conclave.”
The Conclave is the gathering of cardinals, who’re under 80 years old, with a vote to elect a new pope. Names that keep cropping up as possible African candidates include 80-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson. At age 64, Turkson is youngish by Vatican standards, and already has considerable experience running an archdiocese. In 2009, the pope appointed him to head the influential Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
“Every ordained bishop can be the next Pope,” Turkson told the BBC “In that sense, as long as I’m a bishop and a cardinal, I’m a candidate with all the cardinals and bishops around the world.”
Turkson added that as the Church looks for leadership, it could come from Africa, Latin America or Asia, but that ultimately “we leave it to God to give to the Church the leader that would best serve humanity and the task of the Church in history.”
After mass back home in Accra, Ghana, this week, Catholic worshippers shared their views about the possibility of an African becoming pope.
“Considering the fact that the Catholic Church has a lot of hope in Africa, I think there’s a very big possibility of us getting an African pope,” says Marilyn Ofori. “I think he’ll make a lot of difference and then use our African values as well to better the Catholic Church.”