Tuesday, March 19, 2013

White Smoke White Pope: Race, Ethnicity & Stereotyping at the Papal Conclave

Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
March 12-19, 2013

By Frederick Nnoma-Addison

The world seemed extremely pleased with the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. By choosing the name Pope Francis to indicate his unique style and commitment to the poor, the new pontiff became the instant darling of the world and a religious celebrity in his own right. It wasn’t the choice of Pope Francis as the next “vicar of Christ” that was problematic but rather the methodology and symbolism used in the election process, which reeks of stereotyping, more than the Catholic Church would want to be involved in.

The papal conclave of 2013 was convened to elect a pope to succeed Benedict XVI following his resignation on February 28, 2013. After the 115 participating cardinal-electors gathered, they set March 12, 2013 as the beginning of the conclave. Since the two-thirds majority needed to elect a pope was not reached on the first day’s single ballot, there were two additional rounds of voting the following morning. Both second and third rounds ended without a pope being chosen, and black smoke fumed out of the Sistine Chapel chimney. It was the fifth ballot that concluded the process and elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as Pope. Then at 7:06 pm local time (2:06pm US Eastern Time), white smoke announced to the world that a pope had been chosen. Shortly afterwards the Vatican web site published the Latin words “Habemus Papam” – we have a Pope. The Cardinal Protodeacon Jean-Louis Tauran appeared at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and formally announced the election of the new Pope and his chosen regnal name. Pope Francis finally made his appearance, and asked the people to bless him before he blessed the world, concluding the conclave. Hispanics were particularly ecstatic because this time it was one of their own. Blacks would have been equally ecstatic had it been one of their own too.

This tradition of the “smoke signal” used during conclaves dates back several centuries. It is low-tech, tried and tested, historic, and electrifying. It also has the potential of being environmentally unfriendly. Since between 1-2 billion of the earth’s population is black, tan, or colored, it is impossible for me to overlook the implications the black smoke out of the Sistine Chapel has on the black race. The colors black and white have some universal connotations some of which are notorious and even controversial. These two colors have generated heated debates and severe interracial problems since the beginning of biblically recorded human history.

“Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” – King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.) – Numbers 12:1

There were 11 African/black cardinal electors at the just ended conclave; I choose to call them “Popefuls” – pope hopefuls, or wannabe popes. Aside wondering how they felt about “losing” to Pope Francis, I also wonder how they honestly felt about the use of black to symbolize incompletion and failure to elect a pope, and the use of white to signify victory and accomplishment. The Bible uses white as a “heavenly” color, to describe the Great White Throne (Revelations 20:11-15) and the White Horse, (Revelations 19:6-11). There are countless occasions recorded in the Bible where angels appear in white therefore the churches use of white to signify victory is consistent with the Bible.

Black as a negative color or as the color symbolizing failure or an unaccomplished goal however does not originate from Bible. Considering the fact that the Christian Bible teaches about God creating Adam and Eve from the dust of the earth – Genesis 2 – one would think that black or tan would be the world’s preferred color. The negative notion about black seems to be largely defined by human prejudice, as we have seen it towards black people in the United States, in Africa and around the globe. Universal terminologies like black box (aviation industry), black sheep, black plague, black market, black day, black future and black death make the Catholic Church’s use of black smoke during the conclave stereotypical, to say the least. In this context black (smoke) is used to signify failure and lack of accomplishment, two characteristics still used to describe people of color everywhere, despite historic advancements and achievements by this race throughout human history.

Africans account for 16% of the world’s catholic population compared to 39% from the Hispanic world. The total number of blacks or tanned Catholics in the Americas, Asia, and around the world makes blacks an even larger and more significant constituency and the Catholic Church recognizes that. Prior to the election there were speculations of a black pope, cardinal Turkson of Ghana – 64 – being front runner. This idea of a black Pope was not misplaced or exaggerated. It resonated with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in 2004, when he told German TV that “we are ready for a black pope” and called Africa the “spiritual lung of the world.” He repeated the same thing in 2009 during his visits to Cameroon and Angola.

While only 11 of the 115 elector cardinals are African (compared to 60 from Europe and 33 from the Americas), it is widely believed that they presented a united front in the conclave and therefore had a realistic chance of electing one of their own. The names and nationalities of the 11 African / Black cardinal electors are listed in the order their photographs appear above (L-R).

Peter Turkson (Ghana); John Onaiyekan (Nigeria); Antonios Naguib (Egypt); Polycarp Pengo (Tanzania); Wilfrid Napier (South Africa); Anthony Okogie (Nigeria); Gabriel Zubeir Wako (Sudan); Théodore-Adrien Sarr (Senegal); Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya; (Democratic Republic of Congo); John Njue (Kenya); Robert Sarah (Guinea)

Many Africans, Africans-Americans and non Africans could not have envisaged a black Pope 10years ago; but now they do, possibly because the United States has even elected a black President on two consecutive occasions.

Pope Francis has been described as a Pope of many firsts. He is the first Latino, first Jesuit, first in recent times to wear a wooden cross, and even the first Pope with a known high school sweetheart, according to the allegations of one woman. Perhaps he should be the first to review the ancient tradition that unfortunately perpetuates negative stereotypes against people of color. My suggestion for the new vicar is as follows. No smoke at all to symbolize no Pope, and white smoke to symbolize a new Pope.

Today – March 19, 2013 the Vatican will hold an installation mass for Pope Francis and display the new pontiff’s coat of arms and fisherman’s ring. More than 132 government delegations and representatives from major religions will attend the historic event and I join the faithful in wishing the pontiff and the Catholic Church the best in a new dispensation.

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