LAGOS: As African Catholics prayed for the health of Pope John Paul II yesterday, speculation mounted that the ailing pontiff could soon be succeeded by Africa's first Pope in more than 1,500 years. With church congregations rising across Africa, southern Asia and Latin America observers see a global church that is increasingly orientated towards the south and away from its European heartland. In which case, some ask, is it time to think of marking this shift by naming an African Pope, the first since Pope Gelasius I, who led the church between 492 and 496 when early Christians were struggling to convert a pagan Europe.
Step forward Cardinal Francis Arinze, the 72-year-old Prefect of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, one of John Paul II's closest advisers, a staunch conservative and number four in the Vatican hierarchy.
Vatican experts say the choice for the job will depend on whether Italian cardinals are determined to win back a post they dominated for centuries until Poland's Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II. But if they decide to follow the logic of the church's rapid rise in the developing world, then the white smoke might signal a black Pope. In which case, few would be better placed than Arinze, a popular church diplomat.