If the election of a Polish pope came as a big surprise two decades ago, some say the next papal conclave could prompt an even more startling turn: white smoke for a black pope.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, a highly placed Vatican official from Nigeria, is one of the most often-named papabili: men who have the qualifications to hold the top office in the church. Although Arinze is quick to dismiss the idea, at least in public, observers say the increasing prominence of the church in Africa, combined with his interreligious credentials, make him a strong contender. Since 1985, Arinze has headed the Vatican's office for interreligious affairs, traveling extensively around the world and reaching out to members of other faiths.
In the first few Christian centuries, North Africa produced notable Christian leaders. St. Augustine was from North Africa. So was Pope Gelasius I, who led the church from 492 to 496. He was the last pope from Africa, which declined as a major Christian center after the advance of Islam in the seventh century.
But during the past 20 years, the number of African Catholics has nearly doubled, from 50 million to more than 90 million. An estimated 13 million of those are in Nigeria.
The Rev. Clarence Williams, director for black Catholic ministries for the Archdiocese of Detroit, estimates there are about 200 million black Catholics around the world, most of them living in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
"With two-thirds of the world's 1 billion Catholics living below the equator, the world's largest Christian denomination is no longer a European institution," he said. "Talk of a pope from Africa is very significant. Black Catholics are coming of age."
Arinze has been a strong proponent of efforts to develop a style of Christianity in Africa that reflects African culture rather than the culture of the historically dominant West. This push goes hand in hand with anti-colonial sentiment driving political change in Africa.
Dominican Father Aniedi Okure, a Nigerian working on migration and refugee issues for U.S. Catholic bishops in Washington, said, "In Africa, the growth of the church is very impressive, but it is still struggling to stand on its own feet."
The struggle is going on amid wars, refugee problems, and AIDS, Okure said. "Catholicism with an African character has not really blossomed because of these other issues the church has to contend with," he said.
Williams, of the Detroit archdiocese, said Arinze's expertise in Islam, developed in his Vatican role, is highly valued on a continent where Islam is developing apace with Christianity. Nigeria's nascent democracy is threatened by instability, reflected in the country's soaring crime rate and recurrent civil conflicts. Optimists say that Arinze's prominence, combined with his emphasis on interreligious respect, could help keep the peace.
Arinze learned about coexistence with members of other faiths early in life. Although he comes from Onitsha, a predominantly Catholic city, nearly half of Nigeria's citizens are Muslim. Arinze arranged for Pope John Paul II to meet members of both faiths during the pope's visit to Nigeria in 1998.