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An African Pope?

Helmut Sorge | Posted : October 25, 2018

These Sober Sisters are not Attracted by Cosmetics

Perhaps they were two dozen women, possibly less. They were glued to the wooden floor, just like geese or storks flying in formation, being pushed by time and the winds and currents above the clouds from the wintery Europe to Morocco. No sound or movement by the frail bodies, dressed in their simple brown habit. Just the arms stretched out, and their eyes focused on a statue of Mary, the ever-blessed mother of Jesus Christ, son of God. They were nuns, contemplative sisters of the catholic Carmelite order, which was founded more than 500 years ago. They pray their Ave Maria and Kyrie (eleison),they pray Agnus Dei and Salve Regina, some engulfed in apparitions and visions, praying again, cleaning toilets and cooking vegetable soup, the carrots and potatoes harvested in the garden, covered by the wall, where they housed their chicken.

At times, usually around Christmas, they agree to listen together to Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio, up to three hours of Christian thoughts, the redemption through the life of the savior; the highlight of this historic, musical masterpiece of orchestra, choir and soloists is the “hallelujah” chorus, a kind of religious pop song. For some monks and nuns, the monastery is nothing else but the waiting room for paradise, the holy, sacred preparation to meet the Almighty. Sleep is, for these men and women, nothing less than the preparation for death. The bible is the center, the world outside exists in the shadow of their faith. Bach’s St. Matthew passion touches their souls, the life in the community, surrounded by high walls to protect their never-ending hours of contemplation.

A Spiritual Force Larger than the Infantry of the US Army

Today is Easter Saturday, one of the preferred, sacred, Christian holidays, when believers try to find their seat on a wooden church bench, a rare occasion, because European Christians stay away from their churches, which are usually empty, a desert of the spirit. The nuns of Montmartre, committed to their convent “Our lady of Mount Carmel,” will reaffirm their vows, the oath of poverty, chastity and obedience until the end of their existence on earth. The Carmelites, Cistercians, Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits (like the present pope), almost a hundred Christian religious orders, are counting more than 670,000 women worldwide, a Vatican connected, spiritual force, which is larger than the infantry of the US Army or the Air Force. All of them swear to God, that they will obey, not ever marry or give birth to children. These honorable women have replaced the natural desire to join a man with a mystique figure - Jesus Christ, in whom 1.2 billion Catholics and an almost equal number of Protestants believe worldwide.

The chaplain, Monsieur Vingt-trois, really his name, will celebrate the Eucharist with each of these sober, unselfish women, stretched out on the floor for unending minutes. The man of God will offer them a piece of bread, a host, and out of a silver cup, a drop of red wine, symbolizing the bread and wine consumed at the historical Lord’s supper, conveying to the Christian believers the body and blood of Jesus. The chapel of the convent seems more like a wood paneled refectory, and just a dozen worshippers (most of them older than the wooden benches they will have to survive for three hours of religious ceremony), have gathered to celebrate the vows of the nuns. It was close to midnight when Monsieur Vingt-trois motioned one sister after the other to move towards his pulpit, to reaffirm their commitment to the church, to the pope, and Jesus Christ, traditional oaths, which haven’t changed through dictators, occupation, wars and famines.

Convents and monasteries are part of Christian history, although monks and nuns were seldom a great political force in the Vatican, the center of the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, orders like the Trappists or the Benedictians located their superiors, named generals, in the Italian capital, some leading important, religious universities, insisting on their independence from the Vatican’s controls. Through history, quite a number of brothers and sisters worked in schools, hospitals, and some(the Jesuits) concentrated on studies, created newspapers and radio stations, being an active part of the modern, consumer, society. At the height of colonialism, missionaries, monks as well, were sent to Africa, some for decades, as the former abbot of the Trappist monastery of Aiguebelle. Many of the European clergy’s have been touched by Africa, the former student priest in Paris, who for years, lived as a hermit in the desert of North Africa totally alone, close enough to Arab Bedouins to trade for water and some fruit. The desert provoked his senses, and the phantasm that he could communicate with his God directly. The pastor returned to the French capital and created a monastery in the old Jewish quarter, the Marais, introducing his philosophies developed in the desert, promoting the idea for nuns and monks to share the same building and worshipping as a group. The disciples of his cloister were allowed to work outside their religious life, since their earnings supported the community.

The Instinctive Feeling of Finding Roots

Changes have touched the Christian churches, fundamental challenges are threatening their power and influence. The convent on the hills of Montmartre seems like a footnote, but symbolizes the fading of influence and attraction for men or women alike. As one after the other of the sisters stepped out to reaffirm the oath, the change was visible ― some of the women were of Asiatic background and several, yes, were sisters, who came from Africa. Pure and serene, earnest and joyful, they accepted their calling, the instinctive feeling of finding roots, poor, unmarried forever, but safe, appreciated, and respected. The nuns showed no emotions, just the sign of the cross. The Pontifical Yearbook 2017 confirmed the decline of young women inspired to be accepted as nuns. The Vatican statistics document “alarming figures” ― registering a reduction of religious women, worldwide, from 721,935 in 2010 to 670,320 in 2015, a decrease by 7.1 percent ― and again, Africa gives hope to the church: from 2010 (66,737) to 2015, the church registered an increase of religious women (nuns) to 71,567.

Walking Married Women through the Woods

The power of the African Catholic church is not demonstrated by a few nuns on the hills of Montmartre, but more than 1,300 priests in Germany are foreigners, many from India. France counts almost two thousand African-born priests, and just a few weeks ago, “Woman Church World,” an Italian Catholic monthly, part of the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, complained how Cardinals, bishops and Catholic institutions in Rome are exploiting nuns “like virtual slaves” as cleaning women or cooks, for next to no pay.

Some of these nuns are Africans and Asians. An African priest is officiating in the deep, rural regions in Tuscany, in Vicchio, the birthplace of the famous artist Giotto, and the Italian cardinals are alarmed ― up to 40 percent of their parishes are run by foreign born clergy, Poland, Guatemala, and growing African priests. The black chaplain of Vicchio is in charge of other churches in neighboring villages as well, preaching there every other Sunday. In Santa Maria Vezzano for example, where prior to the African, a Latino priest was in charge. Not for long. Since the young beau was more interested to walk lonely, married, women through the woods, than spreading the gospel, he was transferred to do prison work.

49,153 Parishes without a Priest

From year to year, the decline of priestly vocations in Europe are revealed by the Vatican’s “Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesia” ― a decrease of seminarians between 2010 and 2015 of 9.7 percent. In Africa, the number of major seminarians, candidates for the priesthood, grew by 7.7 percent, and Africa now counts more seminarians (29,007), than Europe (18,579). The world’s largest seminary is located in Nigeria. More dramatic: in 2014, 49,153 parishes in the world had no resident priest. Between 1970 and 2012, the number of priests declined from 419,728 to 414,313. In 2010, priests in Europe accounted for 46.1 percent of the global total. They dropped to little more than 43 percent in 2015. In 2010, an average of 2,900 Catholics were attributed to each priest. In 2015, the ratio rises to 3,091. The presence of priests is also weakening in Europe, although the latter has 1,595 Catholics-per-priest, the best ratio overall. The pastoral workload of priests in Africa is remaining stable - around 5,000 Catholics per priest. 

This summer, the bishop of the French diocese of Montauban, Bernard Ginoux, appointed priests from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal to lead his parish clusters, noting carefully in a communiqué, that all priests came with authorizations from their bishops, and were essential to his church’s “mission of evangelization.” His explanation had its reason. Africa’s church leaders are upset. Some of their young chaplains transfer to Europe, temporarily, to complete a philosophy doctorate, or continue higher theological studies. Some are just transferred for a limited time, to fill the growing, alarming gap in Europe, which seems unable to convince enough catholic men or women to swear eternal loyalty to their creator. At the end, many of these pastors refuse to return, citing illness and the need for medication only available in Europe, or the need to support their poor families in their hometowns.

Rich Dioceses Poaching Clergy from Poorer Ones

So many of these clergymen went missing, reported the Catholic Herald a few weeks ago, that the recent Ivory Coast bishop conference complained that “more and more” priests refused to return from Europe and ignoring orders to fulfill their oath after completing their studies or pastoral assignments. 

“Cooperation must be maintained between the bishops affected,” argued the Archbishop Domnique Lebrun of Rouen, adding that this cooperation must be “in line with Canon law and Catholic collegiality rules. There could be no question of rich dioceses poaching clergy from poorer ones, or if European parishes undermining the authority of African bishops by offering sanctuary to their priests.”

Africa, no question, is rapidly growing into a power within the Catholic Church. Catholicism is experiencing its fastest growth in Africa, 238 percent since 1980, approaching 222 million believers (Europe 2015: 286 million). In 2025, estimates the Vatican, one sixth of the world’s catholic population, 230 million, will be Africans. Statistics published by the Vatican in April of last year show that “Africa continues to position itself on the future axis of Catholicism” (Inés San Martín, 2017). Or, as the catholic paper Crux believes, “the Catholic future is in Africa.” The statistical yearbook of the Vatican and the “Annuarion Pontifico” 2017 pointed to Brazil as the top country of the most baptized Catholics in the world (172.2 million), but placed an African nation among the top ten: the Democratic Republic of Congo (43.2 million).

“Christians in Africa (and Latin America) tend to pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives than Christians elsewhere in the world,” explained Joey Marshall in a recent Pew Research Center study, which was based on 84 countries with sizable Christian populations.

In 35 of those countries, at least two thirds of all Christians say religion is very important in their lives. All but three of these countries (USA, Malaysia, Phillipines) are located in Sub Saharan Africa (or Latin America).The levels of religious salience are particularly high in these southern African nations. Over 75 percent of the believers in each country, say religion is very important to them.”
-Joey Marshall, “The world’s most committed Christians live in Africa, Latin America – and the U.S,” (2018).

An African Pope

“These findings,” explains Joey Marshall in the Pew Center Study, “reflect the broader pattern of Christianity’s “march southward,” from wealthy countries to developing ones” (Marshall, 2018).  In Africa, catholic worshippers pray more often, “at least four out of five Christians in Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal, Cameroon and Chad pray every day” (Marshall, 2018).   

It seems only a question of time, an African cardinal, of the present 26, being proposed and elevated to pope. Imagine the leader of the Catholic Church, 1.2 billion faithful, an African, a native of this troubled, at times chaotic, continent, blessed by religion and pained by ravaging wars, touched by the insanity of slavery and the salvation through prayer. Here the imam, here the priest, messengers of humanity and equality. Francis Arinze, a Nigerian cardinal, an adviser to Pope John Paul II, was a serious contender before the 2005 papal conclave elected the German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - Pope Benedict XVI.

Three years before his own elevation, the then cardinal labeled the prospect of an African pope as “entirely plausible” and “a wonderful sign for all Christianity.” During the papal conclave of 2013, Cardinal Peter Turkson, born 1948 in Ghana, was one of the favorites to be chosen successor of Benedict XVI. The Ghanaian, president of the pontifical council for justice and peace (2009 to 2017), was one of the so-called “cardinal electors” who participated in the papal conclaves of 2005 and 2013. The African favorite lost to the present pope, Francis, the former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentine. Cardinal Robert Sarah, born 1945, a Guinean citizen, named Cardinal by Benedict XVI is, these days, also considered as a possible choice for pope, papabile as the Italians say. This candidate, perfect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline of the sacraments, is considered a forceful advocate for the defense of traditional catholic teachings, including on questions of sexual morality.

If the conclave would have to come together in the coming months, to elect a new pope, Europe would have 55 elector/cardinals, Canada 3, Mexico 4, the USA 10, Latin America 18, Asia 16, Occeania 4 ,-- Africa, to whom the pope added the end of June a cardinal from Madagascar, would have 16 electoral votes, if united in their choice, a sizeable group. The “College of Cardinals” counts 227 cardinals, of whom 126 have the right to participate in the selection of a new pope. Four cardinals represent Nigeria, and three each were chosen from Egypt, the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Significantly, the pope placed on his June list of 14 new cardinal appointees, the Iraqi born Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphael Sako, 69, at the top of the list, possibly to highlight the still difficult situation in that country since the US led war, and especially the plight of the tiny Catholic and Christian communities in this oil rich, majority Muslim country of 37 million people. Christians counted for 6 percent of the population in 2003(around 1.5 million), but today the Christian and Catholic population is estimated to be around half that number. 

The choice of pope is not only one of dogma, the principles of the church, are but a play of power and influence. Or, in another word, politics. In July of this year, the Vatican counted 224 cardinals, of which, normally only 120, named as “cardinal electors,” are participating in the election of a new pope. At this day, 126 cardinals are eligible, and those 80 or older (101) are automatically disqualified. 

Africa, which was celebrating its first cardinal ever in 1960, has been awarded, in total, 26 cardinals. Italy, a historically powerful Catholic church with its 22 electoral cardinals, in theory, has more votes and power than Germany, which counts eight cardinals in all, but the German Catholic church is wealthy, and probably (besides the Vatican), the richest church organization in Europe. In other words, it has financial muscles and uses its power within the church and the election of pope.


In 2017, the German Catholic church received 6.15 billion euros from the tax authorities of the government, taxes paid by members of the church. Each taxpayer, who confirms his religious affiliation, is paying eight to nine percent of his official tax payment additional as “Kirchensteuer,” which means church tax. If a citizen objects he/she can, officially, declare his exit from the church and will save his church tax payment. The priests, in return, will not bury or marry a nonbeliever. Since the year 2000, more than 2.2 million Germans formally de-registered from the church. In 2015, only 2.5 million Catholics (of 23.8 million registered) went to church on Sunday, compared with 11.5 million 50 years ago. The Protestant church, 21.9 million registered members, last year received 5.4 billion euros in church tax. In 2016, 162,000 Catholics and about 190,000 Protestants de-registered from their churches. Only 3.5 percent - or 716,000 - of the Protestants attend religious services on Sundays, the traditional church day.

The Church Will Not Be Silenced

Imagine the emptiness Germany counts almost 25,000 churches and cathedrals, and in many may be two elderly women are attending mass. Two of the main German political parties are named as “Christian,” the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) or the Christlich Soziale Union (CSU), which is only represented in the Federal State of Bavaria. In the last regional elections two weeks ago, the CSU, partner in Angela Merkels coalition government in Berlin, lost 10 percent of its votes, despite a desperate attempt by the catholic Ministerpraesident (governor) to win over voters by forcing the municipalities to decorate public spaces with Christian crosses. Representatives of these parties as well as of the clergy, are named to the supervisory boards of official, national, TV channels as ARD or ZDF, are controlling state financed radio stations, as the Deutsche Welle, which receives federal funds.

In other words, the churches are influential and wealthy, since, beyond the income from church taxes, Protestants and Catholics own thousands of offices and apartment buildings, many rental units, which fill the bank accounts of the church with more millions. However, the churches are generous, and Africa, yes, is also a beneficiary of German taxes. The Catholic Church, mainly through the international relief organization “Caritas,” is assisting in African (or South American) relief efforts. Caritas is present in 46 African countries. As pope, Francis said, “a church without charity does not exist,” adding “Caritas is an essential part of the church and it institutionalizes love in the church.” 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Caritas organizations, which employ 35,000 locals, are reaching out to more than 73 million beneficiaries. It is estimated that the overall annual budget amounts to more than 182 million euros. This figure does not include the budgets of other individual “Caritas Internationalis” members supporting the socio–development in Africa which funds amounting to “thousands of millions euros”(Caritas). Other catholic relief organizations spend 44,300 dollars to print 30, 000 copies to be distributed in the war torn Central African Republic, in a remote part of Ethiopia, a priest by the name of Mesert Tadesse is organizing the construction a catholic chapel, aided by a 35,100 euro contribution; Franziskan father Martino Corrazin, since 1991 in Ghana, has built many churches and schools and sponsored numerous social and pastoral projects. He now is the parish priest of Saint Francis, in Elmina, the south of the country. His parish includes eight village sub parishes, one of which is St Anne’s in Nkontrodo. There are some 200 faithful, but no church. A Catholic relief organization,, will help with a grant of 34,800 euros to build a chapel.

Child Soldiers of the Congo

The German Caritas, supported by government funds, the church and private donors, invested (2016) in 154 relief projects in Africa and 79 projects in the Middle East, more than 35 million euros. Caritas is helping in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The German Catholics have assisted farmers in Mali to overcome the drought, and are helping a small radio station working for the pro-democracy movement in Guinea Bissau. Different rebel groups have been leading a bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed groups even forcing children into combat. Caritas set up five transition centers throughout the Congo to reintegrate the child soldiers, more than 20,000 of them. The Central African Republic is considered a lawless country as well, where relief workers have to fear for their lives. Many departed, depressed by fear and lack of local help. More than 80 percent of the population survives in poverty - not an easy task to return to peace. One group decided not to capitulate, the Catholic priests in Bangui, the capital. When unknown assailants shot their brother Firmin Gbagona, while he was having dinner with his colleagues at the archdiocese, they decided not to let fear force them to pack their bags.  Father Mathieu Bondobo, rector and pastor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral declared: “Nobody is protected in this country, but the church will not be silenced.”

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