The concept of an African pope has been with us for a long time. When Paul VI died, I was still a teenager, but a pretty keen watcher of the events surrounding the elections of his successors, John Paul I and John Paul II. Back then, in 1978, the media had the idea that Cardinal Gantin would be the first African pope. The cardinal, from Benin, was widely respected, had been made a bishop before the age of 40, and later achieved great things. He was certainly not a frivolous candidate for the papacy.
In the closing years of John Paul II’s papacy, when the talk of succession was endless, the African candidate was the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. Funnily enough, even now there are people talking of him, even though he is 80 years old and thus not eligible to vote. His age rules him out, but, once more, he is a considerable man, very much respected. I have actually met the cardinal, just once, some 20 years ago, when a student in Rome: he is humble and charismatic. His area of expertise – dialogue with other religions, in particular Islam – remains very important.
Last time round there was also mention of the Cardinal Archbishop of Durban, Wilfrid Napier. He is still young enough at 71 to be a viable candidate this time round, but his name has been eclipsed by that of Peter Turkson. Cardinal Turkson is 64, which is exactly the right age to be elected (Paul VI was 65). Funnily, enough, I met him too, once, a long time ago, in the Gregorian University, where I bumped into him – I can now reveal – in a corridor. He wasn’t a cardinal then, but an affable and approachable bishop. Turkson, I would hazard a guess, is this conclave’s favoured African candidate, but quite prescinding from his nationality, he is a very impressive candidate tout court. He is an intellectual, a communicator, and has energy and charm.
Last conclave, some cardinal whose name I do not remember said that he hoped they would choose someone whose election would lead to dancing in the streets of their home country. Well, I lived in Africa and worked there for four years, and I have seen the faith, the dedication and the enthusiasm of African Catholics. They love the liturgy and they love the social mission of the Church; orthodoxy and orthopraxis are much in evidence. If Turkson were elected, there would be dancing in the streets in his native Ghana, and all over Africa. And it would go on for months. The tired and jaded western world would perhaps sit up and take notice.
The concept of an African pope is one that appeals to the newspapers; but it is a concept that should perhaps appeal to us Catholics as well.