Before the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, there was the papal "candidacy" of Francis Arinze. The Nigerian Cardinal had been billed as the man who could become the first black Pope, garnering loads of media attention during the run-up to the 2005 conclave when Ratzinger eventually emerged as Benedict XVI. Earlier this month Arinze, 76, retired from his top Vatican post, which for all intents and purposes ended any likelihood that he will ever be pontiff.
Once a "Prince of the Church" gives up his day-to-day assignments, he is typically thought to be out of the running for the top job. Arinze, who was once the world's youngest bishop at the age of 33, and a participant at the Second Vatican Council, rose to be a power player in the Roman Curia, serving for many years as the point man on inter-religious dialogue. He served the past six years as the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which will now be headed by Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera of Toledo, Spain. (See the Top 10 Religion Stories of 2008.)
Let it be clear that the Vatican's top job (for life) is very much occupied by Benedict, 81, who shows every sign of being in good health, and set to lead Catholics through Midnight Mass for many Christmases to come. But Arinze's retirement raises the question of if and when the Catholic Church will be ready to follow the United States in choosing a man with roots in Africa or anywhere outside of Europe to lead its ever more diverse flock. Vatican insiders are reticent to name names with Benedict so firmly in command, but there are several prominent clerics likely to take Arinze's place as most papabile African, alongside other better known possibilities from Latin America and Asia who might one day become Pope. (See photos of the election of Pope Benedict XVI.)
The College of Cardinals once dominated by Italians has become a much more diverse group. Still, Europeans continue to have a virtual lock in overall numbers: exactly half of the current 116 Cardinal electors (those under age 80) are from Europe, with Italy still counting 20. Latin America has 20 Cardinal electors, the United States and Canada a total of 16. Asia has 11 and Africa nine. Any Cardinal (any baptized male Catholic, in theory) can emerge from a conclave as Pope.
Among the up-and-coming Cardinals from Africa, Vatican watchers cite Peter Turkson of Ghana, 60 and Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, 67 of South Africa, as potential papal material. Archbishop John Onayiekan of Nigeria, who may soon be up for a Cardinal slot, is considered "strong here and back there," says one Rome insider, referring to Onayiekan's knowledge of the Third World and his skills navigating the ins and outs of the Holy See.
Still, the Vatican parlor game of trying to envision future papal candidates is slippery business. Perhaps the strongest African candidate of the 20th century was the widely respected Cardinal Bernardin Gantin of Benin, who died in May at the age of 86. Having once headed the powerful Congregation of Bishops, some thought Gantin could be an ideal candidate to replace John Paul, whose health was long suffering. But the durable Polish pontiff lived much longer than many predicted, and Gantin eventually retired back to Africa.
Catholicism is expanding across much of the developing world, with the highest growth rate in Africa, now a source of ever more priests sent out to work in European and North American countries facing clergy shortage. Latin American Catholics, who had high hopes back in 2005 that one of their Cardinals would fill John Paul II's papal slippers, are battling to hold onto their faithful, who have been moving to evangelical Protestant churches in droves over the past two decades. The current German Pope has focused much of his attention on efforts to reinvigorate traditional Catholicism in Europe, the historical headquarters of the Church. After trips to Germany, Spain and France, as well as the United States and Brazil, Benedict is slated to make his first visit to Africa in March, with stops in Cameroon and Angola.