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 papabile cardinals put themselves forward. Also, he has just turned 76. The original article can be found here.

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

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”.