In an unexpected selection, the Vatican made history Wednesday as the papal conclave elected the first non-European pope in modern times.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio — henceforth to be known as Pope Francis – is from Argentina. He becomes the Roman Catholic Church’s first ever Latin-American pontiff.
In a statement released by the White House, the president applauded the election of the first pope from the Americas as a sign of the region’s growing influence and strength.
“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day,” said President Barack Obama.
The newly-elected pontiff in many ways symbolizes a beleaguered Catholic Church attempting to break away from the past. Tarnished by tales of scandal, infighting and sexual misconduct, the church badly needs to reinvigorate its image.
Pope Francis, who is of Italian origin but was born in Buenos Aires, is a staunch conservative, though he is considered an outsider who rejects the trappings of power.
Commentators also predict Francis could well prove to be a “reformer” when it comes to dealing with the intricacies of Vatican politics.
In fact, his historic election opens up the debate that, perhaps, the papacy is starting to look beyond Europe for leadership. Could Francis’ election open the doors for the first African pope in more than 1,500 years?
“I have believed right from the word go that there could be an African pope,” says Father Matthew Attanfey, a priest of the Catholic diocese of Awka Nigeria, who was as ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1979.
“It may not be today but sometime in the future. [Pope Francis'] election makes it more plausible that a pope can be elected from any part of the globe.”
In reality, huge demographic shifts make the possibility of future popes from the developing countries, even Africa, a viable option. Catholic populations in Western democracies have significantly fallen, with Africa, Asia and Latin America now representing two-thirds of the world’s Catholics.
Despite competition from Islam and the expanding evangelical Christian movement, Africa is expected to be home to one-sixth of the world’s Catholics by 2025. Countries like Nigeria are at the forefront of the spiritual revolution, with more than 21 million Catholics.
Indeed, in recent years black African cardinals have been seen as credible candidates for the papacy. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze was thought to have been an early favorite to succeed Pope John Paul II, just as Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson was, after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation.
Jude Akudinobi, is a practicing catholic and professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When asked whether he felt Francis’ election would open doors for Africans, Akudinobi said, “In the scheme of things, it’s a remarkable threshold for the church and Catholic community at large.
“He is the first Jesuit and Latin American pope. Whether that translates to other opportunities for African or Asian cardinals down the line is anyone’s guess; more so, as they are not allowed to canvass for votes.”
Akudinobi, who is of Nigerian origin, adds that there are a lot of considerations which the public are not privy to when it comes to selecting a new pontiff to head the “very powerful and sensitive office.”
New York native Abi Ishola-Ayodeji, 31, works as a producer for a New York television station, by night she assumes her role as co-host of Culture Shock: Nigerians in America. She says the election of a Latin American pope shows we are moving in the right direction
“I don’t believe we’re in a post-racial society but institutions, especially large organizations, are becoming increasingly aware that they need to be more inclusive of other races.
“People are more open-minded now. Maybe the election of Obama, the first African-American U.S. president, has something to do with it.”
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti