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Vatican smoke signals: Church could be poised to elect African pontiff

THERE'S a very good chance that the next pope will hail from Africa. But there's an even better chance that he'll be the first pope to use an iPhone.

Ghana's Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson (AP)
Ghana's Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson (AP)Read more

THERE'S a very good chance that the next pope will hail from Africa.

But there's an even better chance that he'll be the first pope to use an iPhone.

The stunning news Monday that 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI will be the first pontiff in nearly six centuries to resign gives the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church another crack at what it passed up on in 2005:

The opportunity to elect a pope who truly reflects the complexities of the 21st century.

"For the first time, the pope will be used to having a computer on his desk and a smartphone in his pocket," enthused Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphian who chronicles Vatican affairs on his popular blog Whispers in the Loggia.

But other church-watchers are more focused on demographics than computer graphics. They wonder whether the cardinals who will gather in the Vatican's storied Sistine Chapel next month will end the tradition of electing European popes by finally choosing a leader from the church's growth regions of Africa or Latin America.

Fewer than five years after the U.S. elected a black president, the Vatican could see its first pope of color - possibly 64-year-old Peter Turkson, of Ghana, a charismatic figure with a weekly TV show, who speaks at least six languages.

But it's worth noting that many of those same experts also speculated on a Third World pontiff when the now-beatified Pope John Paul II died in 2005 - only to watch John Paul's conservative German ideological enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger, grasp the Fisherman's Ring instead.

When Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, he was 78, and many predicted that he would be a "transitional pope" who would carry on John Paul II's policies for a time and leave any major changes to his eventual successor.

Nearly eight years later, Benedict largely met those low expectations. Indeed, any progress by the cleric nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" tended to be subsumed by the ongoing sex-abuse scandal that not only tested faith in America, but festered worldwide from Australia to Ireland.

Ironically, Benedict's most notable nod toward modernity was also a recent, fairly symbolic one, launching a Twitter account called @Pontifex. That, and his decision Monday to become the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to abdicate the papacy - an acknowledgment that in modern times people are outliving the remarkable time and travel demands placed on the papacy.

"I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," the pope said Monday, in announcing his resignation in Latin to a private church group. Aides and family members said he has become increasingly weaker, has found it difficult to walk and has experienced prostate problems, although nothing life-threatening.

Still, the news stunned Catholics from bishops to rank-and-file parishioners. On America's cable-TV gabfest, there was a flurry of chatter about whether a new pope might address the hot-button social issues that have divided U.S. Catholics - such as women in the priesthood, use of birth control or acceptance of homosexuality.

Some area churchgoers agreed.

Michael Mangoni, 37, of Northeast Philadelphia, a congregant at Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul's noon Mass on Monday, said he hopes the vacant papacy leaves room for a more progressive voice.

"Maybe we'll actually get someone in office that's a little more progressive," he said. "A lot has happened since the Middle Ages, you know. Get with the times."

But experts dismissed such speculation as highly unrealistic. The bottom line is that despite his relatively brief reign, Benedict has named more than half of the 118 cardinals in the College of Cardinals who will be voting - and they reflect his traditionalist, socially conservative philosophy.

"I think the questions facing the church are not really the questions that North America and Europe are focusing on," said Daniel Thompson, chairman of the religious-studies department at the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution.

Even the Third World candidates for the papacy lean far to the right on social issues. That's certainly the case for Ghana's Turkson, who recently caused an uproar when he promoted what some people saw as an alarmist video about Islam in Europe. It included a claim that France would be a Muslim nation by the mid-21st century.

Likewise, longtime Vatican watcher John Allen Jr. on Monday called the other top African contender, 80-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze, of Nigeria, "quite conservative." Conversely, there's speculation that some Latin American candidates may have a hard time overcoming their exposure to left-leaning "liberation theology" that flushed in the 1980s.

Dayton's Thompson speculated that the March conclave may have a hard time finding the ideal candidate for the growing demands of the papacy - someone who is an adept manager of the Vatican bureaucracy yet also a charismatic media figure.

And some Philadelphians would also be pleased if that choice is a traditionalist.

"After Pope John Paul II, he was so fantastic, it's kind of hard to fill his shoes in that respect," Dolores Macrina, 65, said outside the Center City cathedral. "But I had no objections to [Pope Benedict]. I like the fact that he sticks to the tradition."

- Staff writer Allison Watkins contributed to this report.