There have been three African popes in the history of the Catholic Church. They were St. Victor I, who was pope from 189 to 199 A.D.; St. Miltiades, also known as Mechiades, who was pope from 311 to 314 A.D.; and St. Gelasius, who was pope from 492 to 496 A.D.
These three popes served in the Vatican before skin color became an issue. The recent passing of Pope John Paul II has raised speculation that perhaps an African might be selected to lead the millions of Catholics around the world. Each one of these early popes made his distinct mark on the world.
Pope Victor I served during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus, who was also African. Pope Victor I encountered a controversy during his term about when the church should celebrate Easter. He ordered the church to celebrate Easter on Sunday. As a result of his order, the practice of celebrating Easter on Sunday became part of the church.
Pope Miltiades worked hard to get the church back on track after a period of trouble. He brought back the remains of Pope St. Eusebius and had them buried with honor in the cemetery of Calixtus. He was known as an excellent pontiff and a good leader during a time of change for the church.
Pope Miltiades led the church to final victory over the Roman Empire. He was buried in a catacomb on the famous Appian Way. It is recorded that he was the last pope to be buried in a catacomb.
Pope St. Gelasius I was born in Rome of African parents. He was a great writer. He was considered to be a great man of strength and holiness. He took prayer seriously and advocated justice and charity for the poor. In a letter to the emperor, he gave a theory of two powers that sought to rule the world: the spiritual authority and the temporal power represented by the emperor. He felt that they were both from God. However, he felt that the spiritual authority was superior because it offered eternal salvation to all.
It is important to know about the contributions of these early black popes because often the history of African people is dismissed. There are millions of black Catholics in the world. There are over 130 million Catholics on the continent of Africa. There are millions of black Catholics in South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The black Catholics here in the United States, who also number in the millions, have not received proper recognition. The number of black Catholics who immigrated from Africa, Central and South America to the United States is on the increase.
With all of this in mind, the selection of the next pope will give hope to millions of African Catholics. One of the names now in consideration is that of Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria. It has been reported that Arinze holds the No. 4 spot in the Vatican hierarchy. He was often seen in the company of Pope John Paul II. He has authored four books.
No one knows who will be selected to lead the world's Catholics. However, Arinze has a good chance. If he is selected, then the following question might be asked: Will the world accept a black pope?
Eva M. Doyle is a retired Buffalo teacher.