Africa Asks if Time Right for African Pope

Lagos, Nigeria - Many Africans think it's time for an African pope. They say having a black at the top would anchor the Roman Catholic Church among the world's poor — signaling that the Vatican aims to lead the fight against inequality and disease, offering a hope of salvation in this world as well as the next.

And, they add, it would recognize that the church is gravitating away from the ailing parishes and empty pews of Europe to focus on vibrant congregations to the south.

Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria is among those mentioned most often around the Vatican as potential successors to John Paul II, although he is considered a long shot by most accounts, even among Africans.

"It would show that God has a sense of humor to give the people a black pope, but are Westerners ready to accept that?" asked Cardinal Bernard Agre of Ivory Coast, one of Africa's 11 cardinals.

The growing Catholic churches in Africa now number 135.6 million, which is nearly 17 percent of worldwide membership.

John Paul did not increase the number of African cardinals, but he greatly boosted their profile by calling several to the Vatican. Arinze, for example, was entrusted with mediating interfaith relations — one of John Paul's favorite projects.

"John Paul strengthened Africa's role in the church," said Mario Aguilar, dean of divinity at St. Andrew's University in Scotland. "John Paul gave the tools to the African churches to become more central to the church."

Aguilar thinks that has increased the chances of seeing an African pope, but many in Africa are skeptical that time has come.

"I doubt that the white man will allow a black man to become pope," said Chinyere Osigwe, a 40-year-old Nigerian.

Osigwe, a mother of four children, would like to see the papacy go to Arinze.

Arinze, 72, shares John Paul's conservative views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality — which tend to play well in Africa.

Nigerians also remember Arinze's work during the Biafra civil war in the late 1960s and early '70s, when missionary schools in the young archbishop's domain were transformed overnight into camps filled with starving refugees.

The church's influence in Africa goes beyond its congregations. Catholic schools educate millions, counting several current leaders among their alumni. Church-run hospitals and clinics serve far more people than the Catholic population. Catholic charities make the church known even in villages without congregations.

John Paul made 13 trips to Africa and underlined the continent's importance to Catholicism by calling last year for a second synod of African bishops, years before one was due.

Such a meeting is needed because of the rapid changes in African Catholicism. According to the U.S. Catholic News Service, half of Africa's 426 active Catholic bishops have been named since the 1994 synod and the continent's Catholic population has increased 30 percent over a decade as has the number of priests and seminarians.

When the pope made his first visit in 1980, many African countries suffered under Marxist regimes that persecuted Catholics or were fettered by military and civilian dictatorships. Zimbabwe had just become independent, but South Africa and Namibia remained under white rule.

Democracy spread in the 1990s, although in places that let loose tribal and ethnic rivalries blew up into civil wars and regional conflicts.

Many African think a leader like Arinze — with his work helping to ease discord between religions — would have a chance at inspiring democracy in a similar way that John Paul contributed to the fall of communism in eastern Europe.

Former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, praised John Paul for speaking out against the evils of apartheid and seeking to unite humanity. He also called for the next pope to be African.

"We hope that perhaps the cardinals when they meet will follow the first non-Italian pope by electing the first African pope," Tutu said from Cape Town, South Africa.

But Archbishop of Dakar Theodore Adrien Sarr doesn't think the cardinals will.

"An African pope? Sooner or later we will see it, but this time around, I don't think the time has come," he said.