Precinct 333

Saturday, February 19, 2005

An African Pope?

Word has it that Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, one of the more conservative members of the Curia, is considered high on the list of possible successors to Pope John Paul II should his death come soon. While that might seem jarring to many people, it wouldn't be the first time an African has served as successor to St. Peter. In fact, there have been three, dating to the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Pope Saint Victor I was born in Africa and bore a Latin name as most Africans did at that time. A native of black Africa, Saint Victor was the 15th pope and served during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus, who was also African and had led Roman legions in Britain. Victor I is credited with reaffirming the holy feast of Easter to be held on Sunday as Pius has done. An outspoken pontiff, Victor I condemned and excommunicated Theodore of Byzantium for denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and added acolytes to the attendance of the clergy. He was crowned with martyrdom and served as pope for ten years, two months and ten days. He was buried near the final resting place of the apostle Peter, the first pope in Vatican. While some historians contend that St. Victor died in 198 A.D. of natural causes, others have suggested that he suffered martyrdom under Servus. He is buried in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City near the "Convesso." Pope Saint Victor I feast day is July 28.

Pope Saint Gelasius I was born in Rome of African parents and was a member of the Roman clergy from youth. Of the three African popes, Gelasius appears to have been the most active. He occupied the holy papacy four years, eight months and eighteen days from 492 A.D. until 496 A.D. Saint Gelasius expanded upon Miliatades' work with the Manicheans, exiling them from Rome and burning their books before the doors of the basilica of the holy Mary. He is credited with delivering the city of Rome from the peril of famine and was a writer of strong letters to people of all rank and classes. He denounced Lupercailia, a fertility rite celebration. He asked them sternly why the gods they worshiped had not provided calm seas so the grain so the grain ships could have reached Rome in time for the winter. He persuaded Femina, a wealthy woman of rank, to return the lands of St. Peter, taken by the barbarians and the Romans, to the church. He designated that the lands be used to support the poor who were flocking to Rome. Pope Saint Gelasius I feast day is November 21.

Pope Saint Militiades I occupied the papacy from 311 to 314 A.D., serving four years, seven months and eight days. Militiades decreed that none of the faithful should fast on Sunday or on the fifth day of the week because this was a pagan custom. It was Militiades who led the church to final victory over the Roman Empire. Saint Militiades was buried on the famous Appain Way. Pope Saint Militiades I feast day is December 10.

The article also discusses a number of other saints from Africa, though I'm inclined to dispute the assumption implicit in the article that "African" necessarily means "black." After all, the Roman Empire was a European empire, and it is more probable that folks such as Augustine and Monica (for example) were of European ancestry, or more closely related to the Berbers of North Africa. But certainly the Egyptians mentioned were likely to reflect the current ethnic makeup of Egypt, as were folks such as Saint Antonio Vieira, Saint Benedict the Moor, Saint Martin de Porres, St. Moses the Black, and more recent martyrs like St. Charles Lwanga (who is surprisingly not mentioned in the article).


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