Francis Arinze, whose country, Nigeria, has 30 million Catholics, has long been regarded as a likely contender. His docket includes arranging interfaith dialogue between Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and other denominations. He has been described as urbane, astute, and charming. He has also been described as a conservative and upholds most of the church's policies. His positions on issues such as abortion, condoms, marriage for priests, etc. are well known and non-controversial. ''His experience in religiously divided Nigeria illustrates many of his positives-he has experience at first hand between Muslims and Christians and has served for many years at the Vatican, making him an insider,'' says an editorial in Nairobi's Daily Nation. ''If a black pope will emerge from this enclave, then he has as good a chance as anyone if not better than most,'' adds the editorial.
Cardinal Wilfred Napier has served the church well in Southern Africa and is described as charismatic and conservative. If indeed an African is selected, he would be the first pope from the continent in more than a thousand years. His predecessors would be Saint Victor, who reigned from 189-199 as the 14th pope. The next was Saint Miltiades (311-314) the 32nd pope, while the last Aftrican pope was Saint Gelasius I (492-496), who was the 49th pope. Although they were born in Rome, they were all of African descent.
These popes made a very strong impression as men of holiness with an outstanding sense of justice and service to the poor and the downtrodden. Africa is beaming with confidence, because a large number of factors seem to favor the continent in so far as the selection of the new pope is concerned. Despite the fact that Africa is the continent where the church is growing fastest, the last black pope reigned some 1,500 years ago. The selection of an African would send a powerful message that the Catholic Church is the true church of the developing world and underscore the fact that "Europe is no longer the centerpiece of Catholicism,'' according to an editorial in the East African Standard.
But as Mwangi Githahu of the Daily Nation observed, "Experience has shown that the church has a tendency to overlook the favorite candidate,'' adding that "even Pope John Paul II was an underdog when he was selected in 1978.". The People newspaper concludes in an editorial, "It is hoped that the cardinals will be guided by the Holy Spirit in the polls to give Catholics a shepherd, a light for mankind, and an international crusader for the common good."
The continent is quite aware that with only 11 out of 117 cardinals who will participate in the conclave coming from Africa, chances of electing an African pope are very slim indeed. However, this weakness is countered by the fact that a large number of the voting cardinals come from other developing countries. It is also hoped that racism will not be a factor in the pope's appointment, as Philip Ochieng of the Sunday Nation puts it, "Because the Catholic Church is a worldwide institution with a multiracial following, it should be color blind, and yet the issue of race continues to dog the election of its leader.''
Some African writers have raised the possibility that the conclave would find other obstacles to choosing a pope from Africa, including concerns about his fealty to church doctrine and adherence to indigenous religious practices. The story of former Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia was frequently cited as an example. Milingo claimed he had special healing powers, started performing tribal exorcism rituals, and was finally summoned to Rome in 1979 and instructed to cease his healing activities. He refused to follow the Vatican's instructions and was forced in 1983 to step down from his post. He later left the church and got married in the Unification Church, before publicly declaring that he had been brainwashed, begging the pope's forgiveness, and returning to the fold after being pardoned by Pope John Paul II. Many of the cardinals taking part in the choice of the new pope may worry about the recurrence of similar behavior.
The words of Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Germany as quoted in The Sunday Nation, may put to rest the fears raised by the followers of the Catholic Church in Africa: "We need a credible, convinced, and convincing successor to Saint Peter, who will also be measured against Pope John Paul II. But not in the sense of a copy, color of the skin, origin, and certain other issues that have been mentioned, which will not be of any significance in this historic exercise."