HARARE — The sudden announcement by Pope Benedict that he was stepping down was met with an outpouring of emotion in Zimbabwe Monday. Some welcomed the possibility of an African being elected as the new pope, while others felt the country's president should take a hint from the outgoing one.
Citing advanced age, Pope Benedict, the 85-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church, announced Monday that he would step down at the end of this month.
Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Congress Secretary-General Father Frederick Chiromba said his organization respected the pope’s decision to resign. He said the development, which he never expected, could create a chance for an African to lead the church.
“We have quite a number of African cardinals now. It all depends on the direction of the Holy Spirit. When the conclave and cardinals come together for the selection if they prefer an African leader, no doubt the cardinals will vote for an African,” said Chiromba.
The Vatican said a college of cardinals would meet to elect a new pope before Easter, which falls on March 31.
Media outlets in Zimbabwe and elsewhere have named two Africans as likely candidates: 64-year-old Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and 80-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.
Father Chiromba said it would not surprise him if an African would head the Roman Catholic Church for the first time.
“As African Catholics we have all the qualities to lead the church given our tradition, our spiritual background, given the circularism that is affecting most parts of the words," explained Chiromba. "We have preserved our spirituality.”
In Zimbabwe, some Roman Catholic Church officials have in the past clashed with President Robert Mugabe who they accused of abusing human rights. Mugabe, a devout Catholic, attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005 despite being on a European Union travel ban.
At the Cathedral in Harare, where Mugabe usually attends services, it was business as usual Tuesday with some Catholics in Zimbabwe driving in to pray.
There was no immediate reaction to Benedict's resignation from Mugabe, who turns 89 later this month and is more than three years older than the pope.