This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in October 2000.

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.

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Whether or not he is elected to succeed John Paul II, Arinze's moment in the spotlight is serving as a reality check for western Catholics, who have been compelled to recognize that the population center of their church has shifted dramatically south.

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.

"The next religious war on the African continent could be a religious war between Christians and Muslims," Williams said. "I think Cardinal Arinze is often mentioned as pope because he has the skills needed for reconciliation."

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.

"If you look at Christian-Muslim relations around the world, it's a life-and-death matter," said Monsignor Raymond East, pastor of Nativity Catholic Church in Washington. Religious tolerance is going to be one of the most important messages for the future."

Arinze, 68, was first noted as a papal candidate in 1992 by the late Peter Hebblethwaite, former Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Since then, Arinze's name has appeared on virtually every list of possible successors to John Paul II. He has earned a reputation as a forceful and articulate speaker. He is often described as charming and media-savvy, a "diplomat's diplomat." But he has also been called "a dictator in the African style" and an "unoriginal thinker," and he routinely declines to be interviewed. He is said to be uncompromising on doctrine, a conservative in the mode of John Paul II.

Jonathan Kwitny, author of a 1997 biography of the pope ("Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II," Henry Holt & Co.), reported in his book that Arinze enthusiastically greeted John Paul's election in 1978 with these words: "Now we will have order in the church." Like the pope, Arinze is strongly opposed to contraception, abortion, married priests, and female priests.

Williams, however, thinks Arinze's conservatism might reflect the style of his boss, more than it reflects his personal beliefs. "When I hear reports that he is conservative, I think it means that he is reflecting the current administration in the church," Williams said. "He's really never had a chance to be himself in his job."

Born into Nigeria's proud Ibo tribe, Arinze became a Christian at age 9. He was baptized by his mentor and teacher, the Rev. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, an Irish missionary who later became Nigeria's first candidate for sainthood. Tansi opened Arinze's parish in Onitsha in 1939; Arinze became his Mass server, followed his encouragement to become a priest, and attended his funeral in England in 1964.

"He inspired many," Arinze has said, "and we still remember what he preached 50 years ago." At Tansi's beatification ceremony in Nigeria in 1998, Arinze said, "To Europeans and Africans, Father Tansi shows how different races can live in harmony and solidarity in recognition of God as our common father."

The young Arinze's decision disappointed his parents, practitioners of the traditional animist religion of the area. But they had made the decision to send him to Catholic schools and accepted his decision to convert. Later, in 1958, after their son was ordained a priest, they, too, became Catholics.

Ordained at 26, Arinze studied in London and Rome and attended the Second Vatican Council before returning to Nigeria in 1965. The same year, Arinze was appointed auxiliary bishop of Onitsha, a move that made him the church's youngest bishop at 32. Three years later, he was made an archbishop--and the first African to head his diocese. Previously, that post had been held by Irish missionary priests.

In 1979, Arinze was elected president of the national bishops conference in Nigeria. A short time later, the pope invited him to Rome to oversee the Vatican's Secretariat for Non-Christians, signaling John Paul's desire to bring the African church more into the mainstream.

As head of the secretariat, later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Arinze has traveled extensively. He has visited the United States many times, most recently last month for the United Nations summit of world religious leaders.

Often described as a confidant of the pope, Arinze is one of five cardinals chosen to help the pope coordinate millennial-year events--another factor contributing to his place in the limelight.

In a commencement address at Wake Forest University last year, where his nephew, Niki Arinze, plays forward on the basketball team, Arinze said, "Collaboration between followers of the various religions is necessary for theological and sociological reasons. Theologically, all people come from the same God. "There is no Catholic hurricane or Baptist drought. There is no Jewish inflation or Muslim unemployment. There is no Buddhist drug addiction or Hindu AIDS. Indeed, these problems don't respect religious frontiers."

In a talk in Philadelphia on that same trip, Arinze praised America for its tradition of respect for others and for initiative. "These values are very precious and should be shared with humanity," he said. Americans "must become ambassadors of freedom to other parts of the world where religious freedom is not always an easy commodity to find."

Even as he reaches out to other religions, though, Arinze insists on a strict doctrinal line. "All are redeemed by Jesus Christ," he said at Wake Forest -- a message that does not always play well with leaders of other faiths. Nor is it strongly held by all contemporary Christian theologians. The Vatican, in fact, has been clamping down recently on Catholic theologians thought to waver on that point.

Of course, all the talk about a black pope doesn't mean that Arinze actually has a good chance to become pope. Some black Catholic leaders say they are enjoying the speculation but aren't holding out a lot of hope. For one thing, they note, cardinals in the limelight before the papal conclave are rarely the ones elected. "You know what they say," Okure said. "He who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal."

Despite the widespread speculation about Arinze, or perhaps another cardinal from the developing world, most observers of the papacy say the more likely successor will be another European, even an Italian. After all, the Italians had held the papacy for nearly 500 years before the Polish John Paul II was elected, and a return to that tradition would hardly be a surprise.

But the talk is exciting to black Catholics -- not just in the world, but in the United States, said East, of Nativity Church in Washington. "We grew up in a situation where there was no leadership in the church that looked like us." Today, there are 15 cardinals from Africa. For American black Catholics, that translates into a stronger feeling of belonging.

"We have finally come to realize that we are people of primarily West African descent," East said. "Our roots are West African roots. Our hearts are connected to the motherland, and our stories are connected."

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