African Popes – Who Quite Possibly Were Black Popes

Here’s a fascinating fact about the Papacy.

In the entirety of Papal history, which spans nearly two millennia, there have only ever been three African popes. Quite astonishing really.

This fact highlights the rarity of African representation at the highest level of the Catholic Church. Hopefully this will change over this century.

The three African popes were:

  1. St Pope Victor I (reigned 189-199 AD): He was from the Roman province of Africa, likely born in what is now Libya or Tunisia.

  2. Saint Pope Miltiades (reigned 311-314 AD): Also known as Melchiades, he was born in Africa, though the exact location is uncertain.

  3. Saint Pope Gelasius I (reigned 492-496 AD): He was born in Rome but was of African descent, specifically from what is now Algeria.

These popes ruled during the early centuries of Christianity when North Africa was an integral part of the Roman Empire and had a significant Christian population. At that time, “African” didn’t carry the same connotations it does today, as it referred to people from the Roman province of Africa, which primarily covered the northern coast of the continent.

Since Pope Gelasius I in the 5th century, there have been no other popes of African origin. This long gap underscores the historical Eurocentric nature of the papacy and reflects broader patterns of power and influence within the Catholic Church over the centuries.

Pope Victor I

Pope Victor I, who led the Church from approximately 189 to 199 AD, was a significant figure in early Christian history. Born in the Roman province of Africa, likely in present-day Libya or Tunisia, Victor was the first known pope from Africa.

He played a crucial role in the Quartodeciman controversy, which centered on the date of Easter celebration. Victor attempted to standardize the date throughout the Church, insisting on the Roman practice of celebrating Easter on a Sunday, rather than on the 14th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar.

Pope Miltiades I

Pope Miltiades, also known as Melchiades, served as the Bishop of Rome and Pope from 311 to 314 AD.

He was born in Africa, and ascended to the papacy at a time when Christians faced severe persecution throughout the Roman world. In 311 AD, Emperor Galerius issued the Edict of Toleration, which ended the systematic persecution of Christians and granted them the freedom to practice their faith openly.

Miltiades played a major role in implementing this edict, helping with the transition from a persecuted minority to a legally recognized religion. His diplomatic skills and leadership were instrumental in establishing a new era of relative peace and stability for the Church.

Interestingly, Miltiades holds the distinction of being the last pope to be buried in the catacombs, the underground burial sites that had long served as both resting places and sanctuaries for persecuted Christians.

The Catholic Church commemorates Pope Miltiades on December 10th (Feast Day), honoring his significant contributions to early Christian history and his role in shepherding the Church through a period of profound change.

Pope Gelasius I

Pope St. Gelasius I has been remembered as the most prolific writer while serving as the head of the Catholic Church for at least its first five centuries. Born into the crumbling world of the failing Western Roman Empire in North Africa before it fell to the Vandal barbarians, he nonetheless argued for the primacy of the Patriarch of Rome over and ahead of the other four patriarchs throughout Christendom found in the East in Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.

Pope St. Gelasius has been remembered as the pope who spelled out the political authority of the pontiffs for the next thousand years of ecclesiastical and secular history, especially in the geographical boundaries that formerly comprised the late Western Roman Empire.

So who could be the next African Pope?

As the Catholic Church continues to grow and evolve globally, there’s increasing speculation about the possibility of another African pope.

Currently, there are 16 active African cardinals who are eligible to both elect a pope and be chosen as one themselves. This representation in the College of Cardinals reflects the growing influence of the African Church.

In 2022, Pope Francis elevated two Africans to the position of cardinal: Peter Okpaleke from Nigeria and Richard Baawobr from Ghana, though sadly, Cardinal Baawobr passed away just months after his appointment.

For many years, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria was frequently mentioned as a potential papal candidate. At 90 years old, he is no longer eligible for election but remains a respected figure in the Church, having served as a principal concelebrant at Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral.

While there are several highly respected African cardinals who could potentially become pope, the question of global acceptance remains a concern. The lingering effects of historical White Supremacy, particularly in the United States and other parts of the world, may present challenges for the election of an African pope.

Some prominent African cardinals often mentioned as potential candidates include:

  1. Cardinal Peter Turkson (Ghana)
  2. Cardinal Robert Sarah (Guinea)
  3. Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba Ouédraogo (Burkina Faso)
  4. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu (Democratic Republic of Congo)

These cardinals, among others, represent the diversity and growth of the African Church. However, papal elections are complex processes influenced by many factors beyond geographical representation and race. The next pope will be chosen based on a combination of theological outlook, leadership abilities, and the current needs of the Church as perceived by the College of Cardinals.

While an African pope remains a possibility, only time will tell if and when this historic event might occur, and how it would be received globally.