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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Roman dispatches

My report yesterday that Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta had suggested there
could be a “black Pope” in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as
the first African-American President seems to have created a bit of a stir.

Some readers pointed out that there has already been a serious black contender
for Pope: Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, currently Prefect of the
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments – while
others noted that there have arguably been “black Popes” before in
history. One reader even kindly suggested I should be taught how to use
Google for research.

Well, rather than use Google, all I have to do is look at my own cuttings. I
have met Cardinal Arinze several times during my time in Rome, and five
years ago reviewed his memoir God’s Invisible Hand. He holds the
titular see of Velletri-Segni, formerly held by a certain Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger. He would not describe himself as a contender however, since no
cardinals put themselves forward. Also, he has just turned 76.
The original article can be found at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article995331.ece

As for African Popes, during the last conclave in 2005, after the death of
John Paul II, I noted that three early Popes came from North Africa, at a
time when it formed part of the Roman Empire: Pope Victor, who reigned from
189-198; Pope Melchiades, or Militiades (311-314); and Pope Gelasius
(492-496). All three are saints.

Pope Victor was born in Africa and served as pontiff during the reign of the
Emperors Commodus and Septimus Severus (who was also an African), persuading
them to release persecuted Christians, including a future pope, Calistus I.

Pope Militiades was the first Pope to benefit from greater tolerance of
Christianity under the Emperor Maxentius, regaining confiscated holy
properties. He was given the first official papal residence, later to become
the Lateran Palace. Pope Gelasius, born in Rome to African parents, revised
the rules for the clergy, permitting the use of wine at the Holy Communion.
The full article can be found at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article377394.ece

So: will the next pontiff will come from the developing world? It seems
plausible – but on the other hand that is what many of us thought, wrongly,
three years ago. And if there is a developing world contender, he may be in
the Americas rather than Africa. I remember writing at the time of the
conclave which eventually elected Pope Benedict that a Latin American Pope
was more likely than an “black” one, and on the whole I still
think that is the case.

After all, over half the worlds’ Catholics live in Latin America. For what it
is worth, my own favoured contenders, all of whom have shown a lifelong
concern for the poor and disadvantaged, remain Cardinal Jorge Mario
Bergoglio of Argentina, a Jesuit who traces his ancestry to Italy and speaks
fluent Italian, which (often to the bafflement of Anglo-Saxon visitors) is
the daily language of the Vatican; Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga
of Honduras, the charismatic saxophone-playing, plane-flying Salesian who
last year became head of Caritas Internationalis; and Cardinal Claudio
Hummes of Brazil, the affable Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy
(who once greeted a group of reporters on St Peter’s Square by clapping us
on the back).

All such speculation is probably academic however, since Pope Benedict,
although one of the oldest men to be elected pontiff, appears in very good
health and full of energy. He is about to issue his next encyclical, on
globalisation and social justice, and is busy planning foreign trips for
2009, including Cameroon and Angola. It could well be that many of those
touted as papabile, black, Latin American or otherwise, will be too
old when the time comes.

The main reason, by the way, why I had no time to re-capitulate any of this
background in my report on Archbishop Gregory and the “black Pope”
was that I had to cover two no less important events – the conclusion of the
three-day Catholic-Muslim Forum, and the conference on Pius XII at which
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, in effect said the
beatification cause for Pius was the Vatican’s business and no-one else’s.

Interestingly, both events were held at the Pontifical Gregorian University,
also known as the Gregorianum, and more informally as “the Greg”.
What a splendidly open and welcoming place this Jesuit institution is.
Founded by St Ignatius of Loyola as a “school of grammar, humanity, and
Christian doctrine” in 1551, it acquired the name “Gregorian”
because of the patronage of Pope Gregory XIII, and now has 3,000 students
from over 130 countries in four palazzos around Piazza della Pilotta. If
there is a stimulating debate going on in Rome, it seems invariably to be
held at “the Greg”.