turksonIf you start seeing pictures of the man at the right or hearing his name now and then, here’s why.

On the international Godbeat, it’s never too early to start speculating about who will become the next pope. The current head of the world’s largest church, Pope Benedict, is admirably fit at 82, but facts like that never discourage avid Vatican watchers. “Vaticanistas” look beyond the present pope to find who else stands out in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Who’s on his way up? Who’s taking on important jobs? Who’s out there publishing books or giving lectures or visiting other cardinals or doing anything else that looks like — perish the thought! – a subtle campaign in an unofficial race whose candidates never throw their birettas into the ring. (Photo: Cardinal Turkson, 13 April 2005/Max Rossi)

It looks like Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is now firmly in this group known as the papabili, or possible popes, thanks to an important job he’s doing this month. He’s the relator, or secretary general, of the Synod for Africa, a major meeting of African bishops in Rome to discuss the Church’s future on that continent.  Previous cardinals who served in such posts include the future popes John Paul II and Benedict. Like another African cardinal once tipped for the job, Nigeria’s Francis Arinze (now 77 and retired), he counts among his plus points an on-the-job familiarity with Islam. John Allen, the veteran vaticanista for the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter, headlined his story on Turkson “Say hello to Africa’s next great hope to be pope.”

Coming after the first non-Italian pope in centuries, it was unlikely that the 2005 conclave would take another daring leap and choose a non-European. The next papal election, whenever it comes, could be different. The received wisdom after the last one was that the Latin Americans had the best chance.

Cardinals file into the Sistine Chapel for conclave, 18 April 2005/poolBut you never know what the coming years will bring. Catholicism is growing in Africa, in contrast to Latin America.  One of Latin America’s best candidates, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, is a player in the current political crisis in his native Honduras and his prospects could depend on how that develops. And you have to wonder if the example of a precedent concerning a world figure outside the Church — the first African-American president, Barack Obama — could exert an indirect influence.  Some Catholics may read that and fire off a comment saying politics has absolutely nothing to do with papal elections. Not directly as in the past, but cardinals don’t all live in Sistine Chapel-like isolation from the rest of the world either. Turkson has strong credentials, as do other papabili, and the advantage of personifying some additional quality — hope? equality? change in continuity? –  could well work in his favour.