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Who after Pope Benedict XI?

By Bob Kasango

The Catholic Church has had three African popes. Is 2013, the year of Africa?

On Feb. 28, Benedict XVI will become the first pope to resign in almost 600 years. That is not just tradition; it is dogma. In the past 1000 years, only four other popes have resigned. Paternity, in the words of Pope Paul IV, “cannot be resigned.” Benedict’s resignation is more curious when compared to the handful of others who have left the powerful office willingly.  Popes have always had the right to resign in theory, simply by writing a letter of resignation to the College of Cardinals – the Catholic Church body that elects them. The only legal requirement is that the reasons be made public.

Pope John Paul II reportedly considered resigning in 2000, when he was 80 years old. Historians have also speculated that Pope Pius XII drew up a resignation letter in case he was kidnapped by Nazis.


The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415, to help resolve a dispute between the three people who claimed to be the Pope.

Max Seckler, a theology professor and close friend of Pope Benedict, quoted by the (London) Telegraph said: “He suffered a lot under certain things that were part of his role. It is hard to imagine what intrigues he had to deal with in Rome. It burdened him because he is a theologian and noble person.

“He has always been prepared to take bold steps, and this is one of them.”

The man born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI 0n April 19, 2005, is normally seen as inhabiting the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church, an organisation that prizes old things highly. This is only partly right.

Benedict XVI endorsed the use of the old-rite Latin mass and pushed back hard against any suggestion that the church make accommodation with secular heresies on contraception or sexuality. But he was also the first pope to give a television interview, and the first pope to use Twitter. Benedict’s resignation, from an office that almost all its holders have died in, marks him out as a moderniser of sorts too in an era where resignation from elective office is almost an abomination in many parts of the world, even if the speech announcing it was in Latin!

Despite joining Twitter at the end of last year, Pope Benedict did not use the social messaging service to announce his resignation. His last online comment was that “we must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy”.

Following John Paul II—who had preached to hundreds of thousands as the Berlin Wall came down, survived an assassination attempt and struck even a few atheists as a precious heirloom—Benedict was marketed as a pope for the church rather than for the world. He would improve internal discipline and stamp on heterodox preaching, just as he had as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a descendent of the Papal Inquisition, for more than 20 years. That position put him at the very helm of determining the ideological stance of the Catholic Church. Instead, Benedict has proved less abrasive and more cerebral than his billing suggested.

In fact Benedict XVI’s papacy is likely to be remembered as overly passive. Though he acknowledged that the church needed to go on “a long penitential journey” to atone for sins committed by its clergy, the church he presided over was slow to react to sexual-abuse scandals involving its priests and misjudged its response when it did. In America, the church’s chief contributor of funds, the scandals and the lawsuits that followed them have left the Catholic Church in a mess. Benedict once said that he had “no talent for…administration or organisation”. Unfortunately in this case his modesty, one of Benedict’s most admirable qualities, was not false.

To some, his resignation does not come as a surprise. He had hinted in a book of interviews in 2010 that he might resign if he felt he was no longer able to carry out his duties.

The world’s attention has now been turned to the succession at the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the debate has revolved around the origin of the next Pope rather than their mental and physical abilities.

The time may have come for the Roman Catholic Church to elect its first non-European leader, and it could be a Latin American.

After John Paul, the Pole, and German-born Benedict, the post once reserved for Italians is now open to all. Who gets the nod depends on the profile of the new pope that the cardinals who elect him at the next conclave think will guide the Church best.

Two senior Vatican officials recently dropped surprisingly clear hints about possible successors. The upshot of their remarks is that the next pope could well be from Latin America.

The region already represents 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared with 25 percent in its European heartland.

Others say it is time for the “first African” Pope, with some observers putting Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana as a favourite.

Cardinal Turkson is the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace., appointed by Pope Benedict in 2009.  At that time, asked if he would like to see a black Pope, he said “if God would wish to see a black man also as pope, thanks be to God” and noted that former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was also from Ghana.

Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria has also been named as a potential African successor.

Another candidate favoured by betting sites is Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, formerly archbishop of Quebec City – even though the 68 year-old head of the Congregation for Bishops was once quoted saying being the pope “would be a nightmare”.

Catholic commentator and writer Mary Kenny told the BBC she looked to see a younger, possibly Latin American candidate as a favourite to take the post.

There has not been a Pope from outside Europe for at least 600 years.

Pope Benedict will have no official role in choosing his successor, and is expected to retire to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo.

Predicting who will be the next pope is a presumptive and precarious endeavor.

After all, the Roman Catholic Church is not just some political institution or a corporation with a white-robed CEO at the helm. To the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, it’s a divine body that operates with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“In a conclave, the choice of the Pope is made by the Holy Spirit,” says veteran Vatican commentator Vittorio Messori.

But papal elections offer rare insight into how the church is growing and evolving, as well as how much it differs from any other earthly institution. Handicapping the players next in line to lead the Vatican involves weighing geopolitical concerns as much as it does the general “holiness” of the candidates.

So what will the cardinals be looking for now that they must gather for a conclave? (Papal elections are called conclaves, which means “locked in with a key,” because the cardinals who vote are sequestered behind locked doors during their deliberations and voting.)

Certainly, they look for holiness. The Pope, above all, must be someone of prayer. He must be pastoral, with deep compassion for the poor and vulnerable. Candidates also are judged on intelligence and grasp of current issues. A flair for languages, particularly Italian and English, is useful but not crucial.

Factors most likely to occupy the minds of the cardinal-electors are the challenges facing the Church and its increasingly global character, according to papal biographer John Allen.

Two-thirds of the world’s Catholics live in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Many observers had predicted that an African cardinal would be elected at the last conclave, with Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze cited as having the best chance of becoming a black Pope. In the end, neither he nor any other African or Asian came close to election.

Cardinal Arinze is no longer considered a contender for the papacy especially because of his advanced age (he is over 90 years). But there are several African and Latin American candidates on the short-list. Still, the possibility of an American Pope remains remote.

For a Church in global transition, there could be as many good reasons for sticking with the traditional Italian or European pontiff as there are for picking from abroad; its decline in Europe presents one of Catholicism’s greatest challenges.

Popes that have resigned

Their unusual stories are also an indication of just how much the church has changed.

Pope Benedict IX in 1045

At age 33 and about 10 years into his term, the Rome-born pope resigned so that he could get married – and to collect some cash from his godfather, also Roman, who paid him to step down so that he might replace him, according to British historian Reginald L. Poole.

Pope Gregory VI in 1046:

The same man who had bribed and replaced his godson ended up leaving the office himself only a year later, according Poole’s account. The trouble began when Benedict IX failed to secure the bride he had resigned for, leading him to change his mind and return to the Vatican. Both popes remained in the city, both claiming to rule the Catholic church, for several months. The increasingly despondent clergy called on the German Emperor Henry III, of the Holy Roman Empire, to invade Rome and remove them both. When Henry III arrived, he treated Gregory VI as the rightful pope but urged him to stand before a council of fellow church leaders. The bishops urged Gregory VI to resign for bribing his way into office. Though the fresh new pope argued that he had done nothing wrong in buying the papacy, he stepped down anyway.

Pope Celestine V in 1294

After only five months in office, the somber Sicilian pope formally decreed that popes now had the right to resign, which he immediately used. He wrote, referring to himself in the third person, that he had resigned out of “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” He became a hermit, but two years later was dragged out of solitude by his successor, who locked him up in an Italian castle. Celestine died 10 months later.

Pope Gregory XII, in 1415:

The elderly Venetian had held the office for 10 years, but he was not the only pope. For decades, the Western Schism had left Europe with two popes, one in Rome and one in the French city of Avignon, according to Britannica. The schism’s causes were political rather than theological: the pope had tremendous power over European politics, which had led its kings to become gradually more aggressive in manipulating the church’s leaders. Gregory XII resigned so that a special council in Constance, which is today a German city, could excommunicate the Avignon-based pope and start fresh with a new, single leader of the Catholic church.

Pope Benedict XVI, in 2013:

In a statement released by the Vatican, Pope Benedict said he had repeatedly examined his conscience before coming to the certainty that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministery”.

He said the modern world, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith”, required a “strength of mind and body” that he had lost in the last few months.

Papal fact file

  • There have been 217 popes from Italy, 17 from France, 6 from Germany, 3 from Spain, 3 from Africa, and one each from England, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Poland.
  • The number given by the Vatican is 265, including Pope Benedict XVI. (Other lists cite 266 popes; the discrepancy arises around Stephen II, who died in 752 after he was elected but before he could be consecrated.)
  • When John Paul II, who was born in Poland, was elected pope in 1978, he was the first non-Italian pope since 1523.
  • Pope Clement VII, who served from 1523 to 1534, was so fond of mushrooms that he made it illegal for anyone else to eat those growing in the Papal States, to avoid shortage for his own table. He died in 1534 from eating the dreaded and poisonous Death Cap mushroom.
  • Pope Benedict IX is the most controversial of all popes. He was born in 1012 and died in 1056. He was Pope on three occasions between 1032 and 1048. He was also one of the youngest popes and was the only man ever to have sold the papacy.
  • There were 3 popes who were Africans. They were Pope Victor I who was pontiff from 189 to 199. He was born in the Roman Province of Africa; Pope Miltiades who was served from 311 to 314. He was a Berber African; and Pope Gelasius I who served from 492 to 496. He was African by birthright.
  • Father and Son pope and saint – Pope St. Hormisdas was pope from 514 to 523. He was married and widowed before ordination. He was the father of Pope St. Silverius.
  • The most favorite name of popes is John, 24 popes used this name and there were 15 popes who used the name Gregory.
  • There were 14 popes who used the name Benedict and 14 popes also used the name Clement.
  • There were 13 popes who used the name Innocent, 12 for Leo, 10 for Pius, 10 for Stephen, 8 for Boniface, 8 for Urban, 6 for Alexander, 6 for Paul, 5 for Adrian, 5 for Celestine and 5 for Sixtus.
  • The Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination, recognises Saint Peter as the fist Bishop of Rome or Pope. He is thought to have served for 30 years.
  • Since 1585, there have been 39 popes known not to have been sexually active during their papacy.
  • There were 10 popes who were married before receiving Holy Orders.
  • Pope Siricius, served from 384–399, was married but left his wife and children in order to become pope. He wrote a decree in 385, stating that priests should stop cohabiting with their wives.
  • Pope Felix III, served from 483–492, was a widower with two children when he was elected in 483. It is said that he was the great-great-grandfather of Gregory the Great.
  • Pope John XVII (1003) was married before his election to the papacy and had three sons, who all became priests.
  • St. Peter, the first pope, was married before taking office. The last pope to have been married before he entered the clergy is Pope Honorius IV. He was the pope from 1285 to 1287.
  • There were 4 sexually active popes before receiving Holy Orders. They were Pope Pius II, Pope Innocent VIII, Pope Clement VII and Pope Gregory XIII.
  • Pope Paul II (1464–1471) was alleged to have died of a heart attack while in a sexual act with a page.
  • The oldest elected pope since 1295 is Clement X. He was elected in 1670 and was 79 years, 290 days 86 old. He served from 1670 to 1676.
  • The oldest pope at death since 1295 is Leo XIII. He was 93 years, 140 days when he died and reigned for 25 years as pope. He was born in 1810 and died in 1903.
  • The two longest-reigning popes whose reigns lengths can be determined from contemporary historical data are the following: Pius IX (1846–1878): He reigned for 31 years, 7 months and 23 days or a total of 11,560 days. The second longest-reigning pope was John Paul II (1978–2005): He served for 26 years, 5 months and 17 days or a total of 9,665 days.
  • The Venerable Pope John Paul II has been the only Polish or Slavic Pope to date and was the first non-Italian Pope since Dutch Pope Adrian VI in 1522.
  • The two shortest-reigning popes were Urban VII he served for 13 days from September 15 to 27, 1590 and died of malaria before coronation; he is followed by Pope Boniface VI who served for 16 days in 896.
  • There were six popes who were Syrians.

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