African touted as Pope's successor

The Australian

By Richard Owen, The Times
October 02, 2003

The man tipped to be the first black pope has set out his credentials as the Vatican continues to prepare the public for the death of Pope John Paul II.

Following comments from top Vatican official Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that the Pope was in "very bad" health, the Pope's private secretary Georg Gaenswein said yesterday the 83-year-old pontiff could not walk or stand.

"He is a hero for the faithful," Mr Gaenswein said. "The fact he doesn't give up despite his illness makes him even more credible . . . When he is no longer allowed to travel, then dear God will come for him."

Meanwhile, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria has become the first possible successor to be publicly promoted.

In a book of interviews published this week called God's Invisible Hand, Cardinal Arinze presents himself as a man who has risen from humble origins in a Nigerian village to a senior position in the Vatican, and as a conservative capable of reaching other constituencies.

Cardinals do not publicly campaign for advancement, yet an Arinze bandwagon is beginning to roll. This week the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Eusebio Oscar Scheid – one of 31 new cardinals appointed by the Pope last Sunday – said that although a Latin American pope was a possibility, he would vote for an African.

His views were echoed by Claudio Hummes, the Archbishop of Sao Paulo. Even Cardinal Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican's congregation on doctrine and will play a key role as Dean of the College of Cardinals that will appoint the next pontiff, said he could envisage a black pope.

Cardinal Arinze, 70, is Africa's only possible papal candidate. He uses God's Invisible Hand to describe his early life in a village near Onitsha, in British-ruled colonial Nigeria, his conversion to Christianity as a boy and his journey from Lagos to Rome to study for the priesthood.

He became Africa's youngest bishop, and records his ordeal as a "bishop on the run" during the Biafran War, his studies in London in the 1960s, and his surprise at being made a cardinal in 1985. After 18 years as head of the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue in Rome, he was put in charge of liturgy and the sacraments last year, giving him vital experience of internal affairs.

He suggests Christianity can learn from other faiths, and calls for greater tolerance and free discussion within the Catholic church.

Speculation about the Pope's successor will increase this month when cardinals from all over the world converge on Rome for a "pre-conclave" marking the Pope's 25th anniversary in office.