Even before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Monday, there were suggestions that his successor should be non-European. Some observers have said that the Catholic Church is ready to select its first African or Latin American pope. But Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana says that ethnicity and race should have no role in the selection of a pope.
Most Catholics today live in the Americas, and the Church is growing in Africa. Its influence seems to be waning in its heartland of Europe, in the wake of sexual abuse scandals, growing secularism and an unwillingness of the Church leadership to change with the times.
When the pontiff made his historic announcement, becoming the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign, analysts were quick to come up with lists of candidates most likely to replace him. Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, was on many of those lists. But he says such expectations are often unrealistic.
"This is not a United Nations affair. Neither is this an AU affair," said Cardinal Turkson. "It is nothing which is purely political. It's nothing which is purely continental and stuff. This is essentially an exercise of the Catholic Church, ok ? And it certainly does have influence, you know as widespread and all of that. But it is essentially a church affair."
The Ghanaian cardinal said that while it is natural for Africans to want one of their own to be elected as the next pope, it is more important to focus on who is the best person to continue St. Peter's ministry.
"Therefore, before we start going continental, we need first to go to church and think about what the Catholic Church in Africa can do or should be doing with such an event," said Turkson. "When this is the case, then what we are heading for is the Catholic Church in Africa in communion with the Catholic Church around the world choosing a pastor, choosing a chief pastor, somebody to, you know, exercise leadership over the whole Church."
Cardinal Turkson urged his fellow Africans to pray that the Church gets the best possible leader, someone responsive to the needs of the Catholic community in Africa and the rest of the world.
If elected, he will be the first non-European to lead some 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.