Institutions

Has there ever been a black or African pope?

Cardinal Peter Turkson.

(RNS) Amid all the fevered speculation about who might succeed Pope Benedict XVI, one possibility seems particularly tantalizing: that the conclave could elect an African to be the first black pontiff in the nearly 2,000-year history of the papacy.

But in all that time has there really never been a black pope? Or an African pope? It depends on what you mean by “black” and by “African,” and answering those questions requires a bit of ancient history and some modern context.

First, the history: While it can seem to the contemporary mind that the papacy is a purely European institution, and predominantly an Italian one to boot, the early popes in fact reflected the diversity of the early church – a community that was born in the Middle East and spread around the Mediterranean basin, from Greece to Rome and the Iberian peninsula and with great success to North Africa.

“North Africa was the Bible belt of early Christianity,” said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “Carthage was the buckle,” he added, referring to the city located in modern-day Tunisia.

So it should be no surprise that three early popes hailed from that region: the 14th pope, Victor I (circa 189-198 A.D.); the 32nd pope, Miltiades (311-314 A.D.); and the 49th pope, Gelasius I (492-496 A.D.).

According to the sixth-century Liber Pontificalis, the earliest known record of the popes, Victor was from North Africa, while Miltiades and Gelasius likely were born in Rome to families of African origin.

Interestingly, Victor was the first pope to speak Latin because Christians in Rome were still using Greek in the liturgy. As one historian has written, it was “remarkable … that Latin should have won recognition as the language of African Christianity from the outset, while the Roman church was still using Greek.”

But were these three African popes “black” in the sense that we would define race today? And did it matter back then?

The Rev. Cyprian Davis, a Benedictine priest who is a leading historian of African-American Catholicism, notes that by Pope Victor’s time, the Roman aristocracy had large holdings in North Africa. It’s not clear, however, whether these so-called African popes came from those families or from the rural, somewhat darker-skinned indigenous population known as the Berbers.

Davis said the best bet for what we would consider a “black” pope is probably Victor, but he added that the church and the empire of those early centuries were a mosaic of colors and ethnicities.

“It’s important for us to look and say that yes, the early papacy was not white. No, it was much more diverse than you might think,” Davis said.

Moreover, race as we think of it today did not have quite the same meaning back then.

“When you say ‘black pope,’ you have to think Roman Empire, not African-American,” as Bellitto put it. Some popes in those days – along with many renowned saints and martyrs and bishops like St. Augustine of Hippo – probably looked more like modern Arabs than any pontiff of the last millennium.

Cardinal Peter Turkson. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/ZbCSNi).

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cardinal_Tukson_987.jpg

Cardinal Peter Turkson. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/ZbCSNi).

The upshot of all this is that if the cardinals elect a black African this month, it would be a big deal. The main African candidates — like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana — are from sub-Saharan Africa, and choosing any of them would represent a historic first for the church, geographically and racially.

Above all, it would send a signal that the church was moving into the future, not just recovering the past. Catholics in Africa and other regions of the Southern Hemisphere where the church is growing could see Rome as validating their central role, while African-American Catholics in the U.S. might see a black pope as a shot in the arm to their small but vital community.

“I don’t want to say that we blacks have arrived again, and what was once, now we’re back!” said Davis with a soft laugh. But, he continued, “I’m sure black Catholics like myself would think it’s a wonderful thing.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

38 Comments

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  • It would be a great thing if the Catholic Church had a black pope. Or for that matter a Latin pope. We shall see.

  • what difference does it make about the color skin or country one is, it’s about a pope that can bring us closer to God. we need not look at such a worldly veiw.

  • I’m sure there are several hopefuls that could fill the shoes of the fisherman. Let’s give the conclave credit to vote for a Pope that will be a good spiritual leader in the Catholic world. It’s Catholics that need another good leader. Most people outside of the Church, seem to look at this as a presidential election, it is not!
    The Holy Spirit is directly involved in the choice for the line of St. Peter. So, be patient and pray for a saint.

  • The color of his skin or country of origin should NEVER, EVER play a role in the selection of a pope. That is purely idiotic liberal thinking. Just pray that the Holy Spirit guides the Cardinals in their selection of a truly holy man of God.

  • Anyone find it ironic that just minutes after Jesus named Simon the “Rock”, he also called this man who is claimed as the first pope, “Satan” for saying no to Jesus. So much for papal infallibility.

    The is only one man who gives access to God and that is not the pope. It is Jesus, the Son of man and the Son of God, the Christ, the Annointed One of God.

    Romans 3 teaches salvation is a gift of God’s forgiveness out of love as a free gift and not dependent on our works or contributions. “Not by works lest anyone should boast”. Crystal clear in Scripture. Anyone who would tell Jesus, “no, people are not saved by faith alone” would certainly not be in the infallibility camp.

  • Race is always an issue. Anyone claiming colorblindness is either (1) dishonest or (2) lacking a sense of history.

    I seriously doubt that white Roman Catholics would allow there to be a non-white Pope. It will not happen.

  • To Scott,
    First, the Pope is only infallible when interpreting Church teaching. No one would expect him to know everything about everything, but he cannot steer the Church wrong. Jesus said he would not leave us orphans. He sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles in the upper room which we celebrate as Pentecost. When the early church had need of clarification, they turned to Peter as their leader. And they chose successors to Peter because the Church should not be without a leader. Otherwise people would be interpreting the Bible a million different ways and coming up with thousands of different Churches each teaching their own interpretation of serious issues. For example, is abortion moral or immoral? We have popeless Christian Churches today that agree that it is allowable to kill an infant in it’s mother’s womb! Acts 1:26 refers to Peter and eleven apostles. He is named apart from them.
    Second, the Pope does not give anyone access to Jesus. I must say that’s the first time I have heard that! That would mean we pray to the Pope. We Catholics are taught to pray and ask in Jesus’ name.
    Third, Catholics are taught that salvation is freely given and freely accepted. However, if one is a follower of Christ, and truly born again of the spirit, it would be impossible to stop oneself from doing works of charity as an expression of one’s love for God. “Faith without works is useless.” James 2:20
    Also see Revelations 14:13, our works accompany us to heaven! How nice!

  • Jeannette, you don’t sound like a christian, what are you doing at a christian site? ahhh now i know, to trash christians.

  • dont you people know what “black pope” means???? i have yet to see the correct definition

  • @TJ …. I have great confidence in the Holy Spirit. I have zero confidence in people giving heed to the Holy Spirit.

    The Roman Catholic Church? I love it! I am praying for my Catholic brothers and sisters.

  • @Loyal ….. You are correct in theory. Race should NOT be a factor in Church leadership. Yet, in actuality, it is! Does it trouble you that in the USA, the most segregated time of the week is during Church? What do think would happen at the typical “White congregation” if a Black priest was assigned to their parish? We both know that there would be problems and much murmuring. Still, I like your optimism. Keep it up.

  • Of course there have been Black popes. Four if you count the East’s Dioscorus. the problem is with European- heritaged understanding of “Black”. Our elders indicate we have ’em “snow to crow” melanin wise, skin color.
    My wife’s Moms and grandmothers on both sides looked Scandanavian, but Black they were. and they used that passe blanc to override the evils of segregation.
    For those of European heritaged, the Black Popes probably looked like our Black Louisiana brethren of today–some call them Creole. Ya gotta look real hard to tell.

  • Color doesn’t matter. It is the content of the character. We want a holy pope, that’s all.

  • The Cardinals are human beings and human beings have free will. If the conclave is successful at joining it’s will with the Holy Spirit’s promptings so that the Father’s Will is carried out, we will end up with the best possible choice. If the conclave succumbs to those who are predisposed to electing someone who meets their ideology of the future Church, and those men are nor prayerfully open to the Holy Spirit, we will end up with less than the optimum choice.

    The Holy Spirit prompts and man either listens and obeys or ignores and does as he pleases; it is our responsibility as the laity to pray in ernest that the conclave will do the former.

    Pray, pray and pray more and then pray again.

  • Brian
    We had an Black African priest (he was from Ghana) here in Bloomer, Wisconsin for about 8 years and he was welcomed with open arms. They just reassigned him to a Catholic Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The whole congregation truely misses him as he was loved by all in this community and we had a very tearful sendoff when he left. I think most wish he was still here.
    Scott

  • I want a WHITE pope. Keep your political agendas to your own “low information” political beliefs.

  • @ Scott … you have a great story to tell. Tell it. Your Church is an example of what we should be. Unfortunately, your story is the exception and not the rule

  • YOurself, respectfully you already have one, or several:(Pope is a adminstrative position, but everyone does NOT flow from Cephas (Peter), thus you have:
    Patriarch Kyrill (Russian Orthodox “pope”)
    Orthodox Patriarch Kirill
    Patriarch Irinej is the 45th Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the spiritual leader of Eastern
    Metropolitan Bishop Ieronymous of Thebes
    and of the Coptic Orthodox church Theodoros II (Bishop Tawadoros, auxiliary bishop of Beheira) as 118th Pope. (successor to St. Mark)
    and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II
    all of which are Popes, first among equals of their respective churches.
    Remember Yeshua(Jesus) sent them out two by two? Churches were established, not only by the apostles, by the 72 disciples as well (the Orthodox branch knows their names). the one holy catholic (meaning universal) Church incorporates them all,not JUST THE LATIN RITE, whose “Archbishop of Rome” is about to be elected..

  • This isn’t a Christian site, it’s a site for all news of religion, faith and belief.

  • @yourself so what happen if we get a black pope? One that does not look like you and I (I am Italian, I assume you are white also)? You will not accept him as your pope? What type of catholic are you? There should be NO agenda. People should not push for a black or Asian or Hispanic or European pope just to show diversity (reflect the membership) or solidarity (keep it white), people should accept the choice of the conclave as the right choice guided by the holy spirit. I am fearful that if the pope is not white then many will use the argument that john posted above i.e. ” If the conclave succumbs to those who are predisposed to electing someone who meets their ideology of the future Church, and those men are nor prayerfully open to the Holy Spirit, we will end up with less than the optimum choice”. Have they ever chosen less than the optimum choice? So why question there choice under any circumstances?

  • Exactly. And why does it always have to be a black or hispanic choice to show how we’re “moving forward”? It could be an Asian for all we care. Choosing a black or hispanic president, pope, or CEO doesn’t mean we are moving forward at all. I don’t know why people think that. We could “move forward” with a white person just the same. As history has already shown us.

  • With all due respect, what does…”a pope that can bring us closer to God”…even mean??

  • there have been over 100 African Popes ..

    Roman Catholisim is not the first Catholic Chruch ,, the Romans only became Catholic some 300 years AD, AND , they only started appointing popes THEN ..

    HOWEVER,

    The FIRST Catholic Church, which is the Coptic Orthadox Church of Alexandira , the first pope sat in Alexandria ..
    There were NO POPES in ROME ,,
    ROME had an archdiocese, and thus had arch bishops…

    When ROME took the papalcy from Alexandria in 325 AD, they posthumusly awarded the title of “pope” to all the dead Roman Bishops (about 30 of them)..

    Since THEN , there have always been 2 popes on the planet ..
    So for some 300 years, the ONLY popes were the African Popes who sat in Alexandria ,
    Furthermore, Alexandria never STOPPED appointing popes ..

    the current POPE is Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria

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