IF THE present bishop of Rome -- one of the longest reigning popes -- survives until his 80th birthday on May 18, 2000, it is not unthinkable that he might resign.
In fact, the latest Newsweek magazine quotes John Paul II, in his 21st year as pope and in fragile health, as saying that after 2000, all Vatican decisions will be for someone else.
So, Vatican watchers are asking: Who will be the next pope?
Some Vatican insiders say that, for many reasons, the next pontiff may be from Africa.
Feeding such speculation was a recent Wall Street Journal front-page article about Francis Arinze, a 66-year-old Nigerian cardinal.
The high-ranking papal deputy is reportedly on the short list of men likely to become the next pope. The young Arinze was baptized a 9-year-old convert from a traditional African religion.
The Wall Street Journal quoted the Rev. Thomas J. Reese as saying that Cardinal Arinze, is "up there in the top five. . . . He's got a personality that will capture the imagination of the world." The Rev. Reese is a Jesuit priest and author of "Inside the Vatican," which examines contemporary Vatican politics.
The buzz over Cardinal Arinze is understandable. The charismatic leader has worked in Rome for many years, and is seen as a key figure in the church. For example, he is one of five people helping to coordinate the millennium jubilee for 2000, the papal-decreed Holy Year, a time of special religious observances and blessings.
Also, Cardinal Arinze is in the mold of John Paul, a conservative who reaches out to the Third World, initiates talks with leaders of other religions and works to diversify the church's leadership.
If he is named the next pope, his race may not be a key factor in his selection.
Some 15 cardinals are African, and almost half of the members of the College of Cardinals who are eligible to vote for pope are neither European nor North American.
So, if a papal prospect's race isn't of overriding importance to the College of Cardinals, why is it such a big deal? After all, many historians believe black popes reigned in the early years of the church.
The official yearbook of the Vatican lists three popes as Africans and saints: Victor I (189-198), Miltiades (311-314) and Gelasius I (482-496). North Africa, of course, had been colonized by pagan Rome, and so these popes may not have been men of color.
As with the colossal St. Augustine of Hippo (modern Algeria), the actual race of these three Rome-born popes is not known. Perhaps nobody was race-conscious enough to spell out the matter.
The swift Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 600s effectively destroyed the once flourishing Christianity there, putting an end to African popes.
As for the College of Cardinals, this group of 120 or so priests need only choose a Catholic male. (These cardinals must be younger than 80; in 18 months, John Paul himself would be too old to vote.)
Picking a pope of color would fit in with biblical direction: The final book of the New Testament, Revelation, envisions a heaven comprising every nation, race, tribe and tongue.
It is one of the glories of Catholicism that it has typically been open to all -- for in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman, male nor female (Galatians 3: 28).
Catholics, generally, are proud that cardinals are now chosen from every continent. Each cardinal is made pastor of a Roman church, so that, at least symbolically, most popes are chosen from Roman pastors.
Papal conclaves are full of surprises, as was the last one in its choice of a non-Italian.
As the especially scandalous popes of the 10th century proved, the everyday Catholic goes about struggling to embody the ideals of Christ, regardless of whether the "Vicar of Christ," a title first documented with references to the last African pope in 495, is saint or sinner, wise or foolish, liberal or conservative.
Father Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.
Pub Date: 12/21/98