Could The Next Pope Be Black?

Philadelphia Catholics react to the possibility of a Latin American or black papal appointment.

By Sarah Glover
|  Tuesday, Mar 12, 2013  |  Updated 8:14 AM EDT
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America's Cardinals

Sarah Glover

St. Martin de Porres School principal Sr. Nancy Fitzgerald and students (from left) Raheem Murphy, 12, Tara Crews, 13, Jordan Wright, 11, and Kianna Coleman, 14.

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Might the next pope be black?

Raheem Murphy, 12, compared the pope's election process to Christmas and opening a present.

"You don't know what is going to happen. It could be anybody. It really doesn't matter who it is. It's an exciting experience," said Murphy, a student at St. Martin de Porres School in Philadelphia.

A conclave of cardinals from around the globe have gathered at the Vatican to select the next pope. Candidates from Africa and Latin America are noted as among the top contenders, including: 

  • Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana
  • Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina
  • Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras
  • Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria 

The process is underway because Pope Benedict XVI has stepped down. In a rare announcement last month, Pope Benedict XVI said he lacked the strength to fulfill his duties. The last pope to adbicate was 600 years ago.

Pope Benedict XVI gave an emotional final speech on Feb. 27. He recalled questioning God and said, "It's a great burden that you've placed on my shoulders."

"The (election) process is highly complicated. The whole political scene within the conclave is dominated by Italians," said Terry Rey, associate professor of religion at Temple University. "You don't have to be Italian to become pope." 

Might the conclave elect a minority? Cardinal Turkson is hailed as Africa's best chance for a pope

"You don't know if it's going to be someone from Latin America or Africa. It doesn't matter. He's a pope. He's a man of God. As long as you have him, everything will be okay," said Kianna Coleman, 14. 

There are 1.2 billion Catholics across the globe and about 1.5 million Catholics in Philadelphia. According to Bill Bradley, director of the Office for Black Catholics, there are 25,000 black Catholics and four black priests in Philadelphia County. 

St. Martin de Porres is a predominately black Catholic school and church community in North Philadelphia. It's one of 21 black Catholic parishes in Philadelphia.

Principal Sr. Nancy Fitzgerald recalled what it was like when Pope John Paul II was elected pope in 1978. She vividly remembers seeing photos of him skiing.

"It was a surprise because he was Polish and it was the first time someone from Polish descent was elected," she said. "I remember at that time it being an energizing time. The way the world is now, we need some dynaminism, a charismatic person like Obama."

Murphy said he would like to see a pope "who is young, he could be of color, but be able to relate to kids and be energetic." 

Following noon mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul yesterday, Andy Kropp and a friend spoke about the possibilities for who may become pope.

"I would be surprised if it was an American, but not surprised if it was a Latin American. People are looking for a change." As he spoke, his cell phone buzzed. He said the phone notification stated the next pope was going to be Puerto Rican.

Kropp said the race of the pope didn't matter to him. "They will pick who they want to pick," he said.

The 2005 Catholics African World Network census estimates there are 270 million Catholics of African descent across the globe. Rey said Catholicism has had significant growth on the African continent in the past 50 years. 

"Because of social media, we know about the church in Africa and Latin America," said Elizabeth Riordan, director of secondary religious education and staff development at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  

"I'm really excited to see what the holy spirit will do. The church is ready. A pope from a different continent would help spread the gospel," she said. 

Asian candidates for pope include Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka. Top American candidates are Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City and Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston. 

"We are at a very important threshold. The first pope of African, Latin American or Asian descent is important for Christian unity thoughout the world," said Rey. 

"For an African to become pope, it would signal that Africa really matters. It's long overdue," he said.

The St. Martin de Porres students who spoke to NBC10 said the race of the pope was not a factor, but rather they'd like to see a pope who is "kind, intelligent, young and a good speaker."  

NBC10's Tracy Davidson is reporting from the Vatican on the papal conclave.

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