Pope Benedict XVI waved the Vatican goodbye last week, becoming the first Pope in nearly 600 years to voluntarily resign from the Holy See. As we await the coming conclave, speculation abounds as to who the College of Cardinals (as inspired by the Holy Spirit) will choose to replace the departing academic. While the results are uncertain, Cardinal Peter Turkson easily has become the media’s favorite darling. Many publicans tout him as the lead contender, some going so far as to give him 4-to-1 odds. The cardinal certainly fits many of the preferred qualifications, but what seems to attract the most attention is the fact that Cardinal Peter Turkson is a black man from Ghana.
The possibility of an African pope has electrified a dialogue about race and the Catholic Church. Most commentators have interpreted the question using contemporary blinders, emphasizing Europe’s domination over the papacy and treating Catholicism as a religion foreign to Africa. Some have even dubbed Cardinal Turkson as Catholicism’s possible "First Black Pope."
Sorry to sink the sensational headline, but the Catholic Church has already had an African Pope, three of them in fact. Pope St. Victor I (189-199), Pope St. Miltiades (311-314), and Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496) were all popes in the early church, and all three hailed from Africa. While their exact ancestry is unknown, there is some evidence to suggest that they were not of Roman descent (aka they were black or at least dark skinned). Moreover, their appointments were not aberrations, but instead were reflective of not only the diversity of the Church at its onset, but also of Africa’s historic influence on early Christianity.
Far from being a foreign religion, Christianity is one where Africa took an active part. This is seen clearly in the actions and accomplishments of the Church’s three African popes.
Pope St. Victor I (189-199)
Pope Victor I was the first pope born in the Roman Province of Africa. He is also the most likely to be of North African descent since no original work lists him as a Roman Citizen and/or descendant of Rome. Believed to have been appointed in 189 AD, Pope Victor I introduced two important practices that Catholics follow to this day. First, he set the date for the celebration of Easter on the liturgical calendar. Second, he made Latin the official language of the Church. This last contribution is attributed directly to Pope Victor I’s North African heritage because, at the time of his papacy, the Roman church still used Greek in the liturgy. It was only in the African provinces where Latin was the primary language. Thus, without his papacy, one of the most iconic features of Catholicism may never have emerged.
A canonized saint, the Church celebrates his feast day on July 28 as "St Victor I, Pope and Martyr." As the title suggests, Pope Victor I is recognized as a martyr of the faith.
Pope St. Miltiades (311-314)
Pope Miltiades was elevated to the papacy around 311 AD. He is listed by the Liber Pontificalis, a biographical book of Catholic popes, as being native to Africa. Pope Miltiades had the good fortune of ascending to the papacy during a time of growing religious toleration. Emperors Constantine and Licinius signed the Edict of Milan the year of his election. The Edict effectively put an end to the religious persecution of Christians and enabled Pope Miltiades to reclaim old ecclesiastical buildings confiscated by Roman authorities. In addition, a few sources attribute Pope Miltiades with several Catholic customs, including a decree that Christians not fast on Thursdays and Sundays. A canonized saint, the Church celebrates his feast day on January 10.
Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496)
Pope Gelasius I was the third Catholic pope born in Africa. Appointed in 492 AD, scholars characterize his reign as a call for strict orthodoxy and a more assertive push for papal authority. Indeed, Pope Gelasius I affirmed the primacy of Rome over the entire Church, both east and west, throughout his tenure. His presentation of doctrine even set the model for later popes when they asserted claims of papal supremacy. Pope Gelasius I also had a lasting impact on church-state relations. His letter, the Duo sunt, established a distinction between two powers, the "holy authority of bishops" and the "royal power." This articulation of the separation of church and state would dominate for over a millennium, and it still remains a force in international law. Scholars attribute Pope Gelasius I with multiple contributions to Catholic worship, including the reception of the Holy Eucharist in the form of bread and wine and the authorship of the Roman Sacramentary — a text which hold the prayers and prefaces for the sacraments. A prolific writer, musician, and canonized saint, the Church celebrates his feast day on November 21.
So what do these three African popes tell us?
The biographies of these three popes reveal that relationship between Africa and the Catholic Church is both old and influential — one where African Christians exercised a power of lasting change in the Church’s worship and doctrine. Far from being an afterthought, the Church arose from the faith and actions of African Christians. Christianity is very much an African religion.
Now, this is not an attempt to disparage the election of Cardinal Turkson to the papacy. Nor does it attempt to dismiss more recent centuries where African influence gave way to European control. The Cardinal’s ascension certainly would send a powerful message to current African Catholics, and to other emerging dioceses, that the Church values their membership. It would also reinforce the fact that the Church is inclusive, multicultural, and more important, beyond the confines of modern Western thought.
These three popes, however, remind us that the history and membership of the Catholic Church exists past modern expectations. It is easy to forget, with our current paradigms of race and religion, that Africa did indeed play an important role in the development of Christianity. We forget that the New Testament references African nations and that the disciples traveled to Africa to preach the good news. We forget that Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the cross, came from Lybia and that the Holy Family fled to Egypt after the Massacre of the Innocents. We disregard the fact that the Church recognizes dozens of African saints. The history of Christianity is tied to the history of Africa.
Thus, while Cardinal Turkson’s possible ascension to the papacy would offer a great message to the faithful, it would not represent the first time Africa would occupy a leadership role in the Church as so many commentators seem to believe. Africa already shares a cherished part of Christian history and an important place among the successors of Peter. Cardinal Turkson’s ascension simply would represent a moment when an African papacy returns home.