Church's demographic shift lifts hope for African pope
The Catholic Church in Africa is in a confident place thanks to its growing ranks, and as a result many of its spiritual leaders are urging the election of a black pope.
Pope Benedict XVI, who said he will resign at the end of the month, raised the prospect of an African pontiff more than a decade ago when he was still a Curia Cardinal.
"It is my personal belief that it would be wonderful sign for the whole of Christianity," said the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2002, just three years before he became pontiff in April 2005.
Although only around 15% of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live in Africa, the Church there is prospering.
While ever-increasing numbers of Europeans and North Americans are turning their backs on the Catholic Church, in contrast the number of Catholics in Africa is increasing rapidly.
Cardinal Theodore Adrien Sarr of Senegal discussed the idea of a pope from Africa just hours after Benedict made public his decision to step down.
"I've been wondering about such a question since so many years now," Sarr said. "But is the Church ready to have a pope from Africa? Is the entire world ready to accept a pope from Africa?"
Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana is one of the early favourites amongst bookmakers, and made clear in 2009 that he saw no reason why a black African should not be elected pope, arguing that anyone who allows themselves to be ordained a priest must also be prepared to ascend to the Seat of Saint Peter.
"It is part of the overall package," he said.
Some African Catholics have criticized the Church for being too Eurocentric and that the election of a black pope would go a long way to altering this attitude.
In an interview with the BBC shortly after Benedict's announcement, Turkson said the idea of selecting a pope from a part of the world where the Church is flourishing could play a role in the decision.
"Those type of considerations tend sometimes to muddy the waters although it may not be completely out of place to recognize and consider this aspect."
Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria has also been mentioned as a possible first black pontiff but he retired from a Vatican liturgical office in 2008 and is 80, making him an unlikely selection.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Stephen Brislin, President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, does not believe there is any realistic hope of an African pope this time around.
"The chances are really not that great, although we do have great cardinals such as Turkson. He is an excellent candidate," Brislin told South African radio.
"In the end, it's all about finding the best person, someone who has the energy necessary for this demanding job."
There have been three African popes in the history of the Vatican, although the last one was Pope Gelasius, who was head of the Catholic Church from 492 until his death in 496.
Benedict has also previously stated that there are plenty of potential papal candidates from Africa.
"They are fully up to the level of such a position," he said a decade ago.
Yet liberal forces within the Catholic Church should not take the election of an African pope as a sign of reform, analysts say, given that the continent's spiritual leaders are often conservative on issues of family values and sexuality.
"If it is indeed an African pope, then any notions of reform are completely out the window," commented the South African news website Daily Maverick.
"Homosexuality, the ordaining of female priests, and anything that remotely smacks of reform shall be shelved for another era."