Nigerian Catholics pray and worship during morning mass April 12, 2005 in Kano, Nigeria. Kano is part of Nigeria's primarily Muslim north, but devoted Catholic minority participates in frequent Masses in local cathedrals. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria is considered a leading contender to become pope in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

As the Catholic College of Cardinals prepare to merge on the Vatican to elect their next pope, eyes from around the world have centered on the continent of Africa.

Much of the focus is due to speculation that the next pope could potentially be from Africa. But there is another reason why as well.

Catholics are on the rise in Africa.

According to Charles O. Prejean, Sr., director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry in the Atlanta Archdioceses, there has been considerable growth in the number of Catholic converts in countries throughout Africa.

Prejean, who does not consider himself an authority on Africa, shared the thoughts and opinions of two African priest colleagues: Father Henry Atem of Cameroon and Father John Paul Ezeonyido of Nigeria.

What they shared with him was that for many Africans, converting to Catholicism makes sense.

Some suggested reasons for the surge are due to a strong cultural sense of community, a deep understanding of the existence of a higher being, a deep sense of sacredness, conservatism and hardship.

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Ezeonyido adds that Africa being the location of many third world countries may have some cause for it being more conservative. Plus people tend to be closer to God when they are experiencing hardships. African people tend embrace and trust God to fight for their cause.

In his research, Prejean found that there were 135 million African Catholics in 2005 and by 2025 there will be close to 230 million. Today that number may be closer to 170 million, according to some news reports.

“Take those numbers and add to some of the other under-developed numbers,” said Prejean, “And you will find that the continent of Africa alone represents 40 % of the Catholic community worldwide.”

But those Prejean spoke to want to press that these numbers are not a new phenomenon. To the contrary, there has been constant growth in the number of Catholics in Africa. Catholicism started in Northern Africa and spread to Egypt and Eritrea even before Western Europe colonized sub-Saharan Africa, Prejean asserts. Even though there was a rise in Islam around 600 and 700 A.D., the Catholic faith was not wiped out; its growth just slowed. Today, because of the similarities between Catholicism and the traditional religious practices of many African tribes, many of the rituals blend well.

“Easy switch,” Ezeonyido shared with Prejean.

But what does any of this mean, and does it even matter? Priests in Africa believe the growth may have some impact on the selection of the next pope. Prejean reports there are a total of 16 Cardinals from Africa, while other reports suggest 18.

However, they are not holding their breath or getting too excited. What is almost guaranteed is that the next pope will be conservative. And since most African Catholics are also conservative, their votes will matter.

But there are other issues that must be dealt with in the Catholic church before an African is elected pope.

“It is important (to note) that this does not mean it is time for an African to be a  pope. No matter how high the surge or cyclical trend is,”  Ezeonyido shared with Prejean. “I personally don’t believe it is possible for an African to be pope because of the inequality in the selection of the Cardinals and racism. How many saints do we have and how many Africans are saints? Irrespective of the huge presence of African priests in the West, how many are bishops?”

Is the West ready for an African bishop? Ezeonyido wonders.

“If an African cannot be a bishop in the Western world, how is he going to be a pope? Maybe, it will happen years to come. But in the Catholic Church of today, it is not possible yet.”

Prejean, on the other hand, has a more spiritual response.

“You never can tell about these things. It depends on how the Holy Spirit moves on these guys,” he said.  “The speculations are note outlandish theories; they are reasonable. It would be tremendous to have a person of color as the next pope. I think that would be impressive for a lot of folks.”

Beyond the possibility of the election of the next pope, Preajean, Fr. Atem and Fr. Ezeonyido believes the rise of African Catholics means a lot for the future of the Catholic Church. It means the traditions will most importantly and specifically be preserved.

“Africans are very loyal and are not easily swayed by popular opinion,” Prejean said Ezeonyido writes. “The Catholic Church can always count on Africans when it comes to staying focused and in preserving the Catholic faith and traditions.”

Follow Mashaun D. Simon on Twitter at @memadosi