When the Roman Catholic cardinals selected Karol Wojtyła as pope in 1978, the Poland native who took the name John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
“At that time, it was a super big deal,” said Cecilia Moore, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton and a black Catholic. “And we haven’t always had an Italian pope.”
John Paul II was followed by Pope Benedict XVI, who is German. Now the question for Catholics across the globe, as the cardinals prepare this week to select another pope, is whether the church is ready to go beyond Europe.
It would not be the first time, though it’s been a long time. There were three African popes in the church’s early years: St. Victor, 189 A.D., St. Militiades, 311-314 and St. Gelasius, 492-496. But with modern Catholicism’s growth in Africa, Latin America and Asia, some say the church may be ready for change.
“The shift is to the global south,” Moore said. “We need to understand that Catholicism is a global religion. The world is a lot larger than the narrow view that most of us have.”
The voting starts Tuesday. Only one vote is held the first afternoon. If black smoke rises from the chapel chimney to indicate there is no immediate victor, the cardinals will retire for the day. They will return Wednesday for two rounds of balloting in the morning and two rounds in the afternoon until a pope has been chosen.
>>See our graphic on the process of choosing the next pope<<
During the past 100 years, no conclave has lasted longer than five days. That said, there doesn’t appear to be a front-runner in this election to succeed Benedict XVI, who announced his retirement Feb. 11.
Benedict’s decision, the first time in more than 700 years that a pope has resigned of his own volition, startled the members of the Hispanic Ministry of Dayton, said Sister Maria Stacy. The ministry has an office at St. Mary’s on Allen Street and serves hundreds of immigrant families.
“They were shocked when the Holy Father resigned,” Stacy said. “They were shaken.”
Stacy said the ministry’s parishioners were dedicated and would support whoever is selected. But she said it would be “endearing” for them if the next pope came from Latin America. She said Hispanic Catholics had a strong bond with John Paul II, as he spoke Spanish and visited Latin America frequently during his papacy.
Paul Richardson, a black Catholic who is on senior status after years as a deacon in St. Paul Catholic Church in Yellow Springs, said that he would hope that the church would select a pope from the Third World, but doubted that it would.
“They stacked the deck already,” Richardson said. “Chances are slim to none.”
Richardson said that a Third World pope would bring valuable perspectives on hunger and other issues.
“It would set a different tone,” he said. “The world is changing, very quickly. It would be more of a world-view church.”
At UD, Moore said she would not speculate on who would be selected, particularly after she thought the cardinals would go outside of Europe when Benedict XVI was selected. She said she watched the coverage on television and was shocked to see Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on the screen.
“I remember thinking, ‘why is he there?’” Moore said. “Because I was very convinced I would see someone from Latin America or Africa.”
This story contains information from the Associated Press