Over a thousand years of papal history point to a European pope, but a Vatican expert says that streak could come to an end before the week is over.
An American Pope? What appeared to be a longshot in the days immediately after Pope Benedict’s resignation, is no longer seen that way.
“I think a North American Pope is a real possibility this time,” said NBC News Vatican analyst George Weigel on The Daily Rundown Monday.
Weigel cited the “real staying power” of New York City archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston archbishop Sean O’Malley.
If Dolan or O’Malley were selected, it would be a first in the history of the papacy. In fact, any pope from outside Europe would be unprecedented in the modern era. The last pope elected from outside Europe was Gregory III from Syria. He left the Vatican more than 1,200 years ago. Italy was home to every pope going back to the 1500s until Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978.
While Europe has been at the heart of the papacy, it is no longer the face of the Catholic Church. In 1910, more than six in 10 Catholics in the world lived in Europe. By 2010, the number had fallen to about two in 10. The number of Catholics in Latin America has exploded over that same time period, from 70.6 million to more than 425 million, according to the Pew Research Center. In 1910, just a million or so Catholics lived in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 171 million live there now. Both of these Catholic population centers possess possible papal candidates as well: Archbishop Turkson of Ghana and Archbishop Scherer from Brazil.
Unlike recent conclaves, there doesn’t appear to be a front-runner. The longer voting goes on, the more likely a dark horse candidate enters the conversation. And don’t underestimate the time crunch. Cardinal-electors would surely like to elect a pope in time for Holy Week, which begins March 24. In order for a new pope to be in place by then, they would need to be installed by Sunday, March 17.
Weigel, author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church says a Friday puff of white smoke is “not out of the question.” White smoke is used as a signal from the conclave to the outside world that a new pope has been selected.