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Time for an African pope

By Kwame Nantambu

Now that Pope Benedict XV1 has decided to demit the papal office effective February 28, 2013 "because of advanced age", in addition to hearing deterioration and blindness in left eye, it is a sine qua non for the one hundred and sixteen Roman Catholic cardinals to seriously consider the selection of someone of African descent as pope. Pope Benedict XV1 was selected in 2005.

Indeed, Roman Catholic Church historiography clearly reveals that an African pope is not an anomaly. This historical precedent has already been set/established.

By way of elucidation, not only "several of the early saints of the (Roman Catholic) Church were Africans" but there were also three African popes. They occupied the papal chair between the second and fifth centuries AD. These African Popes were St Victor 1, 189-199, St Miltiades, 311-312 and St Gelasius 1, 492-496. They "made significant contributions to the growth of Christianity and the development of the Roman Catholic Faith."

In assessing these popes, Robert Fulton Holtzclaw in his magnum opus The Saints Go Marching In (1980) concludes : "They were Africans and they contributed immeasurably to the propagation of the Gospel and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth."

The fact of the matter is that the celebration of Easter on a Sunday and that "the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church is Latin is due to the decision of (the African) Pope Victor 1—the fourteenth in line after Saint Peter."

The Christian record shows that it was the African Pope Victor 1 who "called upon the Bishops of Asia to abandon their old custom and accept the practice of the majority by celebrating Easter on Sunday." Pope Victor 1 was determined to "excommunicate all the Christians of Asia... if they failed to abide by his ruling."

However, "there is no record to show whether Pope Victor 1 relented towards the province of Asia." Moreover, "all that is known is that in the course of the third century, the Roman practice of observing Easter on a Sunday became gradually universal" as a result of the obdurate stance of the African Pope Victor 1.

Truth be told: Pope Victor 1 was "an energetic and zealous pontiff who served the church of Rome with unswerving faith, even though his firmness in certain issues, notably the Easter controversy, made him somewhat unpopular with certain Bishops."

Pope Victor 1 died in 199 AD. He is "venerated as a martyr" and his claim to papal fame is that he is "the first in Rome to celebrate the Holy Mysteries in Latin."

On the contrary, "whereas the pontificate of the first African (Pope), Victor 1, was rife with troubles for the Church, that of the second (African Pope of Rome) was relatively calmer."

St Miltiades became pope in 311 A.D. and "was the thirty-second after St Peter." During his pontificate, "he worked tirelessly to ensure that the church would enjoy a period of peace."

In addition, his pontificate also "witnessed one of history's turning points—the coming of (Roman Emperor) Constantine and the end of the era of persecution."

Truth be told: African Pope Miltiades died in January 314 AD and like Saint Victor 1, he "was canonised and is a Saint." St Augustine , "the last and greatest of the indigenous African 'Christian Church Fathers'" describes St Miltiades as " an excellent pontiff, a true son of peace and father of Christians."

On the other hand, the forty-ninth pope after St Peter—the African Gelasius 1—has been renowned as "famous all over the world for his learning and holiness" and " more a servant than a sovereign."

Pope Gelasius 1 "was born in Rome of African parents." And church dignitaries have claimed "that no one had spoken with loftier eloquence of the greatness of the (Holy) See occupied by the Popes than Gelasius 1." He also "showed firm belief in the chair of St Peter."

Truth be told: African Pope Gelasius 1 took office in 492 AD. "Although his pontificate was a short one, he showed himself to be a man of vigour who could speak firmly to (any Roman Emperor) about the need of independence for the church."

"Intelligent and energetic, Gelasius 1 knew what steps he should take to establish a secure future for the church." He "saved Rome from famine and was emphatic on the duty of Bishops to devote a quarter of their revenue to charity."

African Pope Gelasius 1 stressed: "Nothing is more becoming to the priestly office than the protection of the poor and the weak."

It must be emphasised that African Pope Gelasius 1 "died empty-handed as a result of his lavish charity." He often referred to his "temporal goods" (money) as the "patrimony of the poor."

Pope Gelasius 1 died in November 496 AD. "Like St Victor 1 and St Miltiades—the other two African popes—Gelasius 1 was canonised." St Gelasius 1 has been described as "great even among the saints."

In the final analysis, "for their devoted, faithful service and their deeds and piety, the church of Rome owes much to these African pontiffs—Saint Victor 1, Saint Miltiades and Saint Gelasius 1".

More specifically, public statistics reveal that 625,127,000 Roman Catholics reside in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Third World)—compared to 359,660,000 Roman Catholics who live in Europe and North America (First World). Ergo, it is to be hoped that the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church would "do the right thing" and select/appoint an African as the next pope of Rome.

Shem Hotep (" I go in peace").

Dr Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani College of Labour and

Co-operative Studies.

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