Media speculation is rife as to who will become the next leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. One candidate seen as a possible, even likely successor, is Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson from Ghana. He is now serving as president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace at the Vatican.
The former Archbishop of Cape Coast, 64, grew up at Nsuta Wassaw, a small mining settlement in the western region of Ghana.
He received the first six years of his education in a school housed within a Catholic church building. Only the arrangement of tables separated one class from the other.
Turkson’s decision to enter the priesthood came as a shock to his family who saw him as the most mischievous among nine other siblings. However, his firm resolve saw him move from St. Teresa’s Minor Seminary to St. Peter’s Regional Seminary in Ghana to St. Anthony on Hudson in New York, where he obtained two masters degrees in Theology and Divinity in 1974.
After his ordination as a priest, Turkson dedicated his life to church work and teaching in seminaries in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Later, he studied for his doctorate in sacred scriptures in Rome.
The son of a carpenter has impacted the lives of many including Emmanuel Abbeyquaye, assistant secretary general of the Ghana Catholic Bishop’s Conference. Abbeyquaye was among six students mentored for a period of three months and later ordained as priests by Cardinal Turkson.
“When you get close to Cardinal Turkson, you are struck by the aura of holiness around him. He is a man of God. We will have our meetings with him in the evenings and pray together and go and sleep but he will be there," Abbeyquaye explained. "He will spend an hour or two with God before he will go and sleep. Now you wake up at five and go to the church and he will be there praying.”
Turkson is the only Ghanaian to rise to the position of cardinal at the Vatican. Now as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he is trying to promote reform of the international financial system through the establishment of a Global Public Authority and Central World Bank.
He is hoping such institutions would deal fairly with developing countries especially in crisis situations.
Abbeyquaye says those ideas are meant to protect the welfare of vulnerable people in society.
“He believes that whenever economic crises occur in the world, it is the poor who suffer most. He is bringing the conscience of the world to the fact that these economic crises should not negatively impact on the poor because already they are suffering,” Abbeyquaye said.
About half of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in the global south. This and other developments such as the role played by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan -- another native Ghanian -- and the rise of U.S. President Barack Obama are raising hope that there might be a black pope.
Dan Jide, protocol officer at Ghana's National Catholic Secretariat, says although the time is ripe for a black man to be considered for the position, it is not so much about color as ability to deliver.
“The cardinal is highly educated. He is an intellectual. He can handle that position very very well," noted Jide. "Not only that, he speaks many languages. He speaks Hebrew, French, German, Italian, English and his native Fanti.”
Jide said that ability, coupled with his humility can help the cardinal to relate with people worldwide.
“I meet him at the airport when he comes to Accra on visits. And I take him through the VIP lounge but he says, 'Dan, why don’t we go through the ordinary transit point?' He is just an ordinary person. We laugh, we share jokes. Very ordinary,” Jide mused.
Selection of a new pope is expected to be finalized by end of March, before Easter.
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