First Black Pope in 1,500 Years? Could the Nigerian Cardinal, Francis Arinze, Succeed Pope John Paul II and Become the First African Pope in 1,500 Years?

Article excerpt

It has always been taboo in the Vatican to discuss papal succession, but since the beginning of this year, the Vatican's top hats are seriously considering a successor to the ailing John Paul II.

Although secrecy is the name of the game, and if the election of the current pope (he is Polish) came ms a big surprise in 1978, then that of the Igbo-born Nigerian cardinal, Francis Arinze, will be even more startling, because apart From John Paul II, the papacy has been held by Italians for over 500 years, and this time around, they are strongly lobbying for the return of this tradition.

Cardinal Arinze has, however, been linked to the succession since 1992. The Vatican media has over the years, dubbed him "popeable" or "papabili"--meaning one worthy of the papacy.

If he does become the next pope, Cardinal Arinze, from Nigeria's Onitsha state, will become the first black pope in 1,500 years. The last black pope was Pope Gelasius I who led the Catholic Church between 492-496. Before him, there had been two other black popes--Victor I (189-199) and Militades (311-314).

Arinze's election would gratify and fulfil the dreams of millions of devout African Catholics who make up half of the Christain Faith population in Africa. It is also acknowledged that Europeans no longer dominate the Catholic Church. In the past 30 years, statistics show that the number of African Catholics has almost doubled to over 100 million of which 13 million come from Cardinal Arinze's home country, Nigeria.

Since his name first appeared in journalistic circles in the early 1990s, Arinze has kept away from the media hype, concentrating rather on his work at the Vatican as the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. He has been John Paul II's contact man with other religions, particularly Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

Although he makes frequent visits to his home country, Cardinal Arinze's name is trot widely known on the African continent. But the possibility of him becoming the first black pope in generations is supported everywhere in Africa, and has generated quite some excitement. …