With Pope Benedict XVI Stepping Down, Could the Next Pope be African?

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    (CNN) — Hours after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement Monday, speculation was surging over who might be his successor — and what part of the world the new pontiff could be from.

    The 118 cardinals who will pick the next pope are also in the running for the job. Those cardinals are from around the globe, but more than half of them hail from European nations, according to Vatican statistics.

    Worldwide, the demographic trends among the Roman Catholic Church’s nearly 1.2 billion members show a different breakdown, with the church seeing only a trickle of new members in Europe while membership numbers have grown significantly in Africa, according to Vatican statistics.

    So this time around, could the pope be from Africa, where growth has surged significantly, or from Latin America, a longtime bastion for the church?

    “It’s always one of those exciting things. I bet there will be a line in Vegas, there probably already is,” said Randall Woodard, an associate professor of theology at Saint Leo University. “Especially based on the growth of Catholicism and … the geographic shifts that have taken place, a lot of smart money would be on Africa or Central America.”

    Some stressed that the pope’s geographic background shouldn’t be a factor.

    “All of the questions about nationalities are nonsense,” said Michael Sean Winters, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. “There are 118 men and all of them have gotten to know one another. … Their questions are going to be ‘who can we see in that chair?'”

    One top contender for the papacy could be Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. The 64-year-old cardinal currently heads the pope’s council for justice and peace and has experience working with people of different faiths, said Woodard, the managing editor of the International Journal of African Catholicism.

    “He would be able to respond to global needs and … the reality of what the face of Catholicism is,” Woodard said.

    While people outside the church may focus on nationalities and race, within the church’s top ranks cardinals have “a very global vision,” he said.

    “The pope has to be the visible shepherd of 1 billion Catholics in the world,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. “I don’t think going into the conclave the pope has to be of a certain nationality.”

    Other factors are important, Paprocki said, like the age of the next pope.

    “It’s a grueling and demanding schedule to keep up with,” he said.

    Pope Benedict, who is 85 years old, said Monday that he will resign at the end of the month “because of advanced age.”

    “Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” the pope said, according to the Vatican.

    Age is also a factor for cardinals. Once a cardinal reaches 80, he is no longer able to participate in the election of the pope or enter the secret conclave where cardinals gather to select the next pope.

    Of the 118 cardinals of voting age, 28 are from Italy, 34 are from elsewhere in Europe, 19 are from Latin America, 14 are from the United States and Canada, 11 are from Asia, 11 are from Africa and 1 is from Australia.

    Cardinals will meet to choose Benedict’s successor sometime after his official resignation on February 28, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference.

    “Before Easter, we will have the new pope,” he said.

    Benedict won’t be involved in the decision, Lombardi said. But his influence will undoubtedly be felt. Benedict appointed 67 the 118 cardinals who will make the decision.

    It’s a choice that Cardinal Donald Wuerl said he doesn’t take lightly.

    “When we go into the conclave, what has to be upper in the minds of all of us is what is God asking of us in making a choice. Who will fill the chair of Peter? And I think that’s going to be the only consideration,” said Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. “Who among this body has the qualifications, the characteristics, the spiritual gifts to fill that chair?”

    Wuerl told reporters that he was in his study at 5 a.m. Monday preparing a homily for Ash Wednesday when he found out about the pope’s decision.

    “This is very startling,” he said. “I was totally unprepared for it.”

    CNN’s Michael Pearson and Hada Messia contributed to this report.

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