March 1, 2024 | Rome, Italy

A black pope

By |2018-03-21T18:18:57+01:00March 1st, 2004|Features Archive|
Nigerian Cardinal Anthony Okogie is among the leading Third World figures in the Catholic hierarchy.

ditor’s note: The following report was first printed in the March 2004 issue of The American and updated in March 2005, a month before the death of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent election of German Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

In October 1978, when the Roman Catholic Church last elected a pope, the world was mired in instability. The Cold War threatened both East and West. Europe and the United States were buried in deep recession. A political standoff between the Communist and Christian Democratic parties paralyzed and depressed Italy.

Only months before, the body of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro had been discovered in Rome, murdered by Red Brigade terrorists. Pope Paul VI had died in August; his successor John Paul I, only a month later. As the conclave of cardinals gathered to again elect a pope, Rome awaited in a tense and despondent mood.

The election of Karol Wojtyla, the dynamic 58-year-old Archbishop of Krakow and the first non-Italian pope in nearly five centuries, stunned the world. As Pope John Paul II appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the mostly Italian crowd of some 750,000 stood silent, sullen and bewildered.

“A friend of mine was sitting with a very conservative Catholic contessa,” recalls Wilton Wynn, then Time magazine’s Italy bureau chief. “And that day, when they got the news, he asked her how she and her friends felt about having a Pole as pope, and she said to him, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad. We were afraid that he might be a black.’”

Wynn tells the story not to recall Italy’s Dark Ages, but because he believes the anecdote remains relevant. The church, having set a precedent with Wojtyla, might again break from tradition and this time turn to its most flourishing global district, the Third World — Africa in particular — for its next pontiff. For the first time there is a tangible sense that the next head of the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics — and the new bishop of Rome, and of Romans — could be a black man. “Many people think the cardinals will look to the Third World for a new pope,” says author Gerard O’Connell, who has written extensively about the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, viewed as papabile — or of papal stock.

Though the prospect of such a figure emerging as the next pontiff has been widely speculated upon, there has been little public discussion about the impact a Third World pope might have on Italy. In part, this is because most experts in Vatican politics, and immigrants themselves, believe such a choice improbable enough to disregard, the same kind of thinking that dominated arguments prior to Wojtyla’s selection.

Yet for Italy, a nation grappling with a wide array of racial woes, including bigotry and resentment, arising in part from a tide of mostly illegal immigration, the topic couldn’t be more pertinent. In the North, putative separatists, led by Umberto Bossi, have at times made resistance to racial integration a rallying cry. In Rome, Italy’s capital, increases in the numbers of African and Asian immigrants — most of them Muslim — have provoked diverse political responses, including, most recently, a recommendation by a key rightist figure, Alleanza Nazionale’s Gianfranco Fini, Italy’s foreign minister, that new arrivals be granted limited voting rights.

For some, a Third World pope could help bridge Italy’s racial divide. Father Anastasius Soedibjo, an Indonesian Carmelite priest, whose parish is near Rome’s working class Via Casilina, experienced firsthand the pain of fitting into Italy. “In the first few months, feeling different is something I really sensed in my heart here,” he says. “People are not yet ready to converse and live with foreigners. But slowly, humbly, they have opened up to me.” A Third World pope could make a difference, he believes. “I hope there will be a pope from Africa or Asia,” says Soedibjo. “It would help us get over our complaint, which has always been that the Vatican has not understood our real situation.”

But could Italians — at times known for personal tolerance, while at others, notoriously, for hectoring black soccer players — really embrace a Third World pope? Could a country that argued about the appropriateness of a black Miss Italy — there has been one, a Dominican-born model in 1997 — change its mind overnight? Could a public that still has no black role models, institutional or personal, and few black figures in its mass media, adjust to a Third World ambassador at the Vatican, in effect its religious back yard? Frederic Emejuru, born in Italy to Catholic parents from Zaire and Nigeria, says “no,” resoundingly. “It’s out of their scope of vision. They are not ready. They will tell you that they are, though they do not realize that they are not.” Emejuru is only 15.

Other black immigrants agree. “They [Italians] say ‘yes’ because we are all diplomatic before a question. We can all be hypocrites. It still hasn’t happened. It won’t happen for a very long time,” says Jean Nepo Bigirimana, a 27-year-old from Bujumbara, Burundi, who is studying communications at Rome’s Salesiana Pontifical University.

Asked if he’s encountered racism, Bigirimana confines himself to a story. “It is very difficult for a black person to rent an apartment here. When I call, they hear the foreign accent and ask where you are from. I say ‘Burundi,’ and they ask me where that is. I say ‘Africa,’ and they say they do not rent to people of color.”

Pape Diaw, who arrived in Italy from Senegal in 1979 and advises Tuscan regional authorities on immigration issues, is careful to differentiate between the Catholic Church and the Italian state. “If the voting takes place within the church, they [Italians] would accept [a black figure]. But if they would have to decide for themselves … there would not be a black pope, or a Muslim president. Racism is well-rooted in Italian society.”

To date, Italians have remained largely resistant to the “melting pot” implications of immigration, which would include encouraging the rise of Third World figures to positions of cultural, political and economic prominence. In November 2003, Samb Cheikh, a 43-year-old Senegalese man, became the first black immigrant elected to political office, when the Catholic UDC made him a member of a local citizens council in Caserta, near Naples. At the national level, though, black faces are still unknown.

Over the last decade, Italian soccer teams have gradually integrated, but resistance to black players is often shrill. At a recent match pitting Rome’s two top soccer teams, Roma and Lazio, zealous Lazio fans — known as “ultras” — displayed a banner that poked fun at a retired black Brazilian player, Aldair, whom Roma supporters were preparing to honor. “Aldair Day,” said the banner, “Planet of the Apes.”

“Italy is basically a provincial country. There have always been regional differences within the country, but it has never known a multi-ethnic reality,” says University of Bari anthropologist Anna Maria Rivera. “The average Italian does not realize, or accept, that Italy has become a pluralistic country, thanks to immigrants. People are fearful, indifferent, ignorant.”

Alberto Melloni, who heads the Institute of Religious Science at the University of Bologna, takes Rivera’s point, but adds a religious ingredient. “What might appear to be racism is really a growing fear of Islam,” says Melloni. “They [Italians] don’t know how to interpret it or confront the growing number of Muslims that are living in Italy. There is no [political] leader who says, ‘You don’t need to be afraid. Italy is a democracy and we must learn to become a pluralistic society.’”

Fear of multiculturalism has been given further credibility by the frequent depiction of immigrants as potential criminals, a perception fueled at least in part by the frayed and desperate circumstances associated with the influx of boat-people arrivals. News programs that portrayed post-Berlin Wall immigrants in the mid-1990s as pitiful but kindred spirits have at times been less understanding, say, of Senegalese, Moroccans, Sri Lankans — who because of their selling of street-goods were for years referred to in Roman dialect as “vu cumpras,” a phonetic translation of the sales pitch “Want to buy?” Xenophobia, notes Rivera, “increases the more poor and desperate the immigrants are.” Immigrants themselves are quick to point out that they are referred to as “extracommunitari,” an exclusionary phrase that appears to institutionalize their outsider status.

Despite her concerns about Italian society’s resistance to change, Rivera is convinced the figure of the pope, as a Catholic and a spiritual leader, supersedes racial labels and any national racist tendencies. “Most Italians would not be hostile [to a Third World pope],” she says. “It would be very symbolic.”

A former Italian prime minister, Giuliano Amato, agrees. “I can see no reason why this should not happen.” He continues: “A Polish pope was shocking twenty-five years ago. I remember when the name Karol Wojtyla was first announced, many Italians thought it sounded like an African name. People were surprised, when he appeared, to see that he was, in fact, white.”

Journalist Orazio Petrosillo, who holds a degree in theology and has reported on the Vatican since 1980, says that any distress would wither with time. “Italians would be surprised and the event itself would be a shock, but I think Italians are extremely open… they would readily accept a black pope or a Spanish pope or a pope from Latin America.”

Whether acceptance constitutes a warm welcome is far less clear. Golam Mohamed Kibria, who arrived in this country 20 years ago and is president of Italy’s Bangladeshi Association, is deeply suspicious of Italian good will. “Italians would never accept a pope from the Third World because for half of them their minds are closed,” says Kibria, who owns a grocery store and runs a small business owners association in the Esquilino neighborhood of the capital. “They say they are accepting but it is not true.” He calls Fini’s recent overture, publicly recommending immigrants receive the right to vote in local and regional elections, “a political game,” adding: “They [Italians] want to drink immigrants’ blood without giving them the rights.”

Almost without fail, ranking churchmen and intellectuals say the race and ethnicity of a pontiff make no difference, and that the cardinal electors assembled to choose a new pope would have few qualms in picking a non-European face. Much of the Catholic world is non-European, many note, and the greatest spurts in Catholic growth are taking place in nations thousands of miles distant from the Vatican’s curial headquarters in Rome.

“The next conclave will be the most complex and open in modern history,” says papal biographer George Weigel. Nationality and race, he adds, “will make very little difference, which is as it should be.”

Indeed, for Monsignor Marco Frisina, a white Italian whose parish is Chiesa degli Artisti, in the heart of the capital, Christians “are above” differences of ethnicity and race. It is the Third World, he suggests, that is giving the most to the third millennium church. “The Third World exerts pressure on us. It brings us back to spiritual things. It is an appeal to ask more serious questions. It is not enough to say, ‘I want to have fun. I want a career. I want to be successful.’”

In this sense, both immigrants and Third World Catholics are prized by the Rome church as its best disciples: devout, supple, and, like Pope John Paul, disparaging of the materialism the pontiff sees as corroding European and North American values.

“Their presence is spiritually enriching,” says Frisina. Whether this richness should be objectively rewarded, or whether such a large constituency should have a Rome-based leader with which it can associate ethnically, is a question that divides scholars and from which the Vatican distances itself, claiming that decisions regarding the choice of a pope are based entirely on divine inspiration, not on political or demographic concerns.

Yet, in the end, secular arguments prevail. And many observers dispute the church’s open-mindedness. “As an institution, the church is not ready for a Third World pope,” says Rivera. “It is conservative after all, and fears losing its faithful following.” Adds sociologist Maria Immacolata Macioti, who teaches at Rome’s La Sapienza university: “It would be an incredible gesture of openness. Frankly, I don’t know if the church is ready to do it, even from a theoretical and political point of view.”

Not for “at least” another decade, concludes Abdelazim Ali Adam Koko, a Sudanese employed at Rome’s Jesuit Refugee Center. “The way things go in Italy and in the world there is no indication that such a radical change can happen. [Electing Third World] cardinals is okay. They can elect as many from the Third World as they want. But the pope is different. It’s not time yet.”

Kristine Crane is Associate Editor of The American and the author of the "L'Americana" column. She lives and writes in North Central Florida. She was formerly a Fulbright scholar and journalist in Rome, where she helped found "The American." She is originally from Iowa City.