|Pope Benedict XVI|
Most African Catholics are celebrating the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, many watched on big-screen televisions in cafes and sports bars as the new pontiff, who took the name Pope Benedict XVI, gave his first blessings to Catholics around the world.
For some, however, their elation is tinged with disappointment that the Vatican did not choose an African pope, such as Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, a prominent papal candidate in the days leading up to the conclave.
Such a choice would have sent a message that the Vatican wanted to focus more of its energy in Africa, a key area of Christian evangelism. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the Catholic Church is flourishing, even as the numbers of parishioners ebb in the vast, echoing cathedrals of Europe and the United States. African Catholics make up about 17 percent of the church's worldwide membership.
Still, Father Dominic Wamugunda, a Catholic priest and dean of students at Kenya's Nairobi University, says despite Africa's growing prominence in the faith, church leaders in the West are not ready for an African to lead a church historically dominated by European clergy.
"As we were burying Pope John Paul II we saw and everybody in the world witnessed the fact that the papacy is a very important position in terms of the global political terrain," said Father Wamugunda. "I don't think the Americans and the Europeans of whatever description would be ready for an African for that kind of thing."
In some ways, the thousands of tiny, grassroots Catholic churches that dot the African countryside are the front lines of the faith. But the doctrines of the Vatican often collide with the needs and traditions of Africans. Despite concurrence on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, which are taboo and even illegal in much of Africa, the Vatican's unwavering stance against using condoms has potentially dire consequences on a continent devastated by AIDS.
Many Africans were looking for a pope who would be more flexible than Pope John Paul II on health issues such as the use of condoms in the prevention of AIDS, says Augustine Mbuvi, a 27-year-old Kenyan Catholic speaking from the bustling city center of Nairobi.
"This is something we've been fighting in Africa for a very long time-poverty, our education, and then we have also disease," said Augustine Mbuvi. "The pope should try to abolish such things because AIDS is there."
Religious clergy across the continent hope that Pope Benedict XVI will support the interfaith dialog fostered by the late John Paul II. Continuing ecumenical relations among different faiths is important in Africa, where clashes between Christians and Muslims have been particularly fierce in countries like Nigeria and Sudan.
Reverend Arnold Temple heads the interfaith relations department of the All Africa Council of Churches, which represents more than 120 million Christians in 39 African countries. He says he'd like the new pope to follow in the footsteps of popes John XXIII and Paul VI, both of whom were seen as reformists within the Vatican.
"Pope John XXIII actually said, 'Let's open the windows of the church and let the fresh air come in.' And he initiated the second Vatican council," said Arnold Temple. "Pope Paul VI carried it on. And all we can say to the present pope of this period in time is, 'Please let that process continue. Take the peoples of other faiths seriously. Take the other churches seriously. And let's move towards a dialogue. Let's together challenge the vices of our world today [and] the evil that besets continents like Africa.'"
The influence of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations is pervasive in African society. Millions of Africans are enrolled in their schools. Religious charities provide most of Africa's health care, running thousands of hospitals and health clinics across the continent.
Many Africans are looking forward to the day Pope Benedict XVI visits Africa. The late John Paul II made 13 trips to the continent during his papacy, underscoring Africa's importance to the church.