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South Africa Reacts With Surprise as Pope Resigns

  • Anita Powell

Pope Benedict the 16th waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being newly elected, the Vatican, April 19, 2005.

Pope Benedict the 16th waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being newly elected, the Vatican, April 19, 2005.

A senior Catholic Church leader in South Africa says the resignation of Pope Benedict came as a surprise, but that he will be well remembered for his work. Could Benedict’s departure signal the coming of an African pope? On that decision, Archbishop William Slattery said he defers to a higher power.

News of the pope’s resignation caught most people off guard in southern Africa, where the Catholic Church claims a healthy following and is active in a range of social and charitable programs.

Benedict is the first pope to resign in six centuries. He cited his advanced age - he’s 85 years old - as the main factor.

Pope Benedict Bio

  • Became one of the oldest new popes when elected in 2005 at age of 78
  • Headed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming pope
  • Named Cardinal of Munich in 1977
  • Taught at several universities from 1959 to 1966
  • Joined the Hitler Youth in 1941 when it became compulsory for all German boys
  • Born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 in Bavaria's Marktl am Inn, son of a police officer
In South Africa, Archbishop William Slattery, the archbishop of Pretoria, said the news took him by surprise. He said the continent’s 170 million Catholics will remember the pope fondly.

"So we have a great sense of gratitude, because he was an excellent teacher and preacher. He was a totally committed and simple person, even though he was highly intelligent. And he will be remembered from a long time, with gratitude. And the Catholics of Africa in general, there are 170 million Catholics in general, we have great respect for the pope and we understand the reasons he gave for moving on,” said Slattery.

Pope Frontrunners for Now
(Source: Reuters)

While there are no official candidates, here are the "papabili,'' potential popes, most frequently mentioned recently. The list is in alphabetical order.

  • Joao Braz de Aviz (Brazil, 65) brought fresh air to the Vatican department for religious congregations when he took over in 2011. He supports the preference for the poor in Latin America's liberation theology, but not the excesses of its advocates.
  • Timothy Dolan, (USA, 62) became the voice of U.S. Catholicism after being named archbishop of New York in 2009. His humour and dynamism have impressed the Vatican, where both are often missing.
  • Marc Ouellet (Canada, 68) is effectively the Vatican's top staff director as head of the Congregation for Bishops. He once said becoming pope "would be a nightmare.''
  • Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy, 70) has been Vatican culture minister since 2007 and represents the Church to the worlds of art, science, culture and even to atheists.
  • Leonardo Sandri (Argentina, 69) is a "transatlantic'' figure born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents. He held the third-highest Vatican post as its chief of staff in 2000-2007.
  • Odilo Pedro Scherer (Brazilia, 63) ranks as Latin America's strongest candidate. He's Archbishop of Sao Paolo, largest diocese in the largest Catholic country.
  • Christoph Schoenborn (Austria, 67) is a former student of Pope Benedict with a pastoral touch the pontiff lacks. The Vienna archbishop has ranked as papal material since editing the Church catechism in the 1990s.
  • Angelo Scola (Italy, 71) is archbishop of Milan, a springboard to the papacy, and is many Italians' bet to win. An expert on bioethics, he also knows Islam as head of a foundation to promote Muslim-Christian understanding.
  • Luis Tagle (Philippines, 55) has a charisma often compared to that of the late Pope John Paul. He is also close to Pope Benedict after working with him at the International Theological Commission.
  • Peter Turkson (Ghana, 64) is the top African candidate. Head of the Vatican justice and peace bureau, he is spokesman for the Church's social conscience and backs world financial reform.
Eighteen of the 120 cardinals who will choose the next pope are African, and the archbishop said they will have a chance to put forward the candidate they want. He said that South America, which has an estimated 400 million Catholics, also might put up a candidate, as could Asia, where the Catholic Church is enjoying fast growth.

“Everything is open, we’ll just pray and ask for the guidance of God’s spirit," said Slattery. "The election of an African to the task would be a great joy to Africa, and also he would bring the gifts of Africa - the gifts of a deep faith, the gifts of a people who are responding to crisis very very generously at the moment. And so we just have to see and pray that the right decision will be made.”

World Catholic population, 2012.

World Catholic population, 2012.

Slattery praised Pope Benedict for visiting Africa several times and paying attention to the continent’s faithful and needy.

“Remember that in South Africa, where I am, 27 percent of the care of people suffering from AIDS is carried on by the Catholic Church. And this area Benedict spoke a lot to encourage us, and to enable us to respond to the needs of our people here in South Africa, and all over Africa, the same," he said. "Everywhere you go in Africa, every single country, you’ll find hospitals and clinics, education, the like... offered by the Catholic Church to the people of Africa, and Benedict would have been behind that.”

Benedict chose Angola for his first visit to Africa in 2009. The coastal nation is 60 percent Catholic, but that dominance is being threatened by the growth of evangelical churches. One million faithful came to see the pontiff in Angola, the largest turnout of his tour.

South Africa's Christians are predominantly Protestant, but about seven percent of South Africans are Catholic. In neighboring Mozambique, about 28 percent of the population is Catholic.

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