Who owns the post-colonial pope?

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At the age of nine, I met a Catholic Priest from Poland in a village named Ntwadi-Ilunga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had no idea that one day, I would use the few words he taught me in Polish to greet a Polish pope later in my life in Rome.

In 1990 and 1991, while studying theology at the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome and working as broadcaster at the Vatican Radio, I was asked to serve the pope during Mass three times. The first time was in the Basilica San Pietro, and then in the Chiesa del Gesu, and finally in the Sistine Chapel. It was good to meet “the Man of God” and feel his humanity. I remember him smiling when I greeted him in Polish, and we even exchanged a few words in French.

Seeing him now on CNN brings to me some beautiful and, of course, painful memories over the loss of a man who was the first pope in history to visit many African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The question that many ask is, “What does the pope mean to me and to Africa?”

There are many ways of interpreting the pontificate of John Paul II. It is fascinating to me to watch on TV how liberals and conservatives try to own a man who is not only a legend, but also a powerful myth that defies all taxonomies.

For me, the best way to understand the profound significance of this pope is to examine the evolution of world history. What were the Catholic Church and the world like before this pope? It has been said time and again that Karol Woytila, the man who would become John Paul II, was the first non-Western European pope since the Renaissance. One could say that this is the post-colonial pope par excellence, the pope who took seriously the value of Christianity “fuori le mura” (outside Europe).

As professor V.Y. Mudimbe rightly pointed out in his “Invention of Africa,” during the age of the so-called “discoveries of new worlds,” the kings of Spain and Portugal had been commanded by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 in his “Inter Caetera” to overthrow paganism and establish the Christian faith in “all barbarous nations.” The bulls of Nicholas V — “Dum Diversas” in 1452 and “Romanus Pontifex” in 1455 — had indeed already given the kings of Portugal the right to dispossess and eternally enslave Mahometans, pagans, and black peoples. “Dum Diversas” clearly stipulates this right to invade, conquer, expel, and fight Muslims, pagans, and other enemies of Christ wherever they may be.

Christian kings, following the pope’s decisions, could occupy pagan kingdoms, principalities, lordships, and possessions and rob them of their personal property, land, and whatever else they might own. The missionaries, preceding or following a European flag, not only helped their home countries acquire new lands, but also accomplished a “divine” mission ordered by the Holy Father, or “Dominator Dominus.” That was the golden era of Christendom. Commerce, Civilizing mission, and Christianity worked together for a common goal: to Europeanize and salve the souls of “poor primitives.”

In this wave of “globalization,” slave trade and colonialism were blessed as tools bringing civilization and true faith to savage pagans. Five-hundred years later, Pope John Paul II kissed the Koran, apologized for the Holocaust and to some extent for the slave trade, visited Africa several times, and brought Africans into the College of Cardinals. Moreover, he became the ardent apostle of those same human rights that Pius VI (1775-1799) and Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) rejected as “a horrible error,” and as “the false, absurd, mad principle.”

But Pope John Paul II did not only oppose third-world dictatorial kinglets. Russians and Americans alike have also heard his opposition to imperialist wars, communism and heartless capitalism. This is not the pope of Fox News and self-righteous conservatives.

And yet, this pope of social justice was far from endorsing agnostic liberals. If conservatives felt encouraged by his problematic stance on sexual ethics, they were not pleased by his opposition to “American wars” or by his denunciation of capitalism.

As for the liberals, the pope’s position on bioethics and other issues related to modern science seem a kind of medievalism reminiscent of what struck down Galileo. But it is perhaps on the ordination of women that the pope appeared fully paradoxical. Although some conservative women praise him, the general perception in the Catholic Church is that the pope carried on the patriarchal system of the past. As for his administration, his “modus operandi” was considered autocratic. Some even thought that he remained shaped by Polish communism and could not fully appreciate Western democratic ways.

Now, as people wonder who will be the next pope, there are those who think it is time to end 2,000 years of Eurocentrism in a church that claims to be universal, and in a world where the center of gravity is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now that almost 70 percent of Christians are found in the Southern Hemisphere, shouldn’t the center of gravity, which moved from Jerusalem to Rome, now move to Manila or Lagos or Rio de Janeiro?

In the 1960s, theologian Hans Kung observed the following:

“Following the example of (the apostle) Paul, the Church became Greek with the Greek world and barbarian with the European barbarian world. However, it has not become Arabic with the Arabs, black with the blacks, Indian with the Indians, or Chinese with the Chinese. Viewed as a whole, the Church of Jesus Christ has remained a European-American affair.”

Well, this is changing quite rapidly. The question is whether the future of the papacy will represent honestly the new centers of theological production, which are now the Christians of Asia, South America and Africa. Out of the 263 popes we have had, 208 have been Italians. There have been five Syrians, four Germans, 17 French, and 11 Greeks. For years, Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria has been listed among the favorites to succeed John Paul II. If he were to be elected, he would certainly not be the first African pope, as there have been three African popes: Saint Victor I, Saint Melchiades, and Saint Gelasius. As Pope John Paul II himself pointed out, Christianity has been in Africa since the apostolic age, and African-born monks, philosophers and theologians have contributed significantly to the “birth of Christianity.”

But one thing is clear. Whoever does become the next pope will be inheriting a tough job in a church that is very divided, trying to exist in an increasingly turbulent world. Some are already talking of a de facto schism in the Church. Would the election of a third-world pope speed such a process?

Though the nationality or ethnicity of the pope may prove that the Church is truly universal, it is also well-known that it has been a habit of the Vatican to appoint to high office women and third-world Cardinals who are notorious for their conservative stances.

The main problem then is to change the structure of the Church, to change the whole system. But change it into what?

Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Religious Studies department.