THE INSTANT Pope John Paul II knocked at death's door, South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu screamed loudly that the next pope should be an African. There are compelling and troubling reasons that he made that public demand.
Recently, hundreds of worshippers gathered in the hills above Mexico City for a day of prayer, baptism, spiritual renewal and soul cleansing. They were not Roman Catholic. They were evangelical Christians, and they are growing in numbers and popularity and challenging the age-old supremacy of Mexican Catholicism.
The situation is reversed in Nigeria, Brazil, the Philippines and dozens of other countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Two-thirds of the world's billion Catholics live in developing nations. There are nearly 100 million Catholics in Africa and an estimated 200 million black Catholics worldwide.
The growing acceptance or rejection of Catholicism by millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America and among African-Americans presents a towering dilemma for the 117 cardinals who will begin their hush-hush conclave April 18 to elect a papal successor. The dilemma: Should the next pope be non-European and reformist?
During the past couple of decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been racked by ideological, theological and philosophical battles over abortion, gay marriage, women in the priesthood and celibacy. It has witnessed a free-fall in the number of priests and nuns, and it has shelled out millions to settle child sex abuse scandals involving priests.
As grave as these problems are, they pale in relation to the titanic struggles that confront the Roman Catholic hierarchy in trying to adapt and adjust to the profound cultural and racial shifts in the makeup of its global flock.
Pope John Paul recognized that the biggest challenge facing the church was how to be relevant to the potential millions of Roman Catholics who can be gained or lost to Islam and the evangelicals and other faiths in nonwhite countries. The church could not stand pat on entrenched dogma and past practices. It would have to change those practices, its approach to nonwhite Catholics and eventually the ethnic face of the man at the top.
The names of well-connected and respected African and Latin American cardinals have been frequently bandied about as having the right stuff to head the church. That doesn't mean that church leaders will take the bold step of naming one of them to the top spot. There has never been a Latin American pope, and the last African pope was 15 centuries back. But the top non-European contenders bring the unique assets that the church desperately needs to stanch its hemorrhaging.
These men can bridge the Muslim and Christian divide; make battling poverty, the interethnic and religious violence and the damaging economic side effects of rampaging globalization big priorities; and place a strong emphasis on social and economic reforms in poor countries. They have written and spoken extensively on these problems, which can make or break the church in the next decade in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
A leading contender for the top job, Nigerian-born Cardinal Francis Arinze, in a speech at Wake Forest University a few years ago, acknowledged that the church can't duck these issues. "There is no Catholic hurricane or Baptist drought," he said. "There is no Jewish inflation or Muslim unemployment. There is no Buddhist drug addiction or Hindu AIDS. These problems don't respect religious frontiers."
The political jockeying to fill the papal vestments of Pope John Paul will be fierce. The European cardinals hold the dominant papal cards in the balloting with 58 papal electors. Latin America has 21, Africa 11. Italy has the most papal votes of any country and for five centuries before Pope John Paul's reign, the pope was Italian. If they so choose, they can bring mountainous pressure to put an Italian back in the papal top spot.
A black or Latin American pope, though, would send the strong message to practicing Catholics and prospective converts in Latin America and Africa that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to making them not only church members but also players in making church policy.
The prospect of the next pope being from Africa or Latin America excites millions of nonwhite, non-European Catholics. There's no guarantee that it will happen, and a great likelihood that it won't, given the dominance and conservatism of the Italian and European cardinals in the papal voting.
Even if it doesn't happen this time, the problem of making the church even more diverse, inclusive and relevant to Africans and Latin Americans will still be there regardless of who becomes the next pontiff.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.