With Pope Benedict XVI‘s resignation, speculation about who might succeed him when the conclave meets in March has begun. Any baptised Roman Catholic male is eligible for election as pope, but only cardinals have been selected since 1378. Among those who have been mentioned as potential successors is the following:
Cardinal Peter Turkson
A TV star, “people’s person” and a “wonderful” priest, the Ghanaian cardinal emerging as a strong favourite for the papacy is described by colleagues in glowing terms. Peter Turkson, who is president of the Vatican’s pontifical council for justice and peace, was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003 after serving for almost 30 years as an ordained priest.
Turkson was born on 11 October 1948 in Nsuta-Wassaw, a mining hub in Ghana‘s western region, to a Methodist mother and a Catholic father. He studied and taught in New York and Rome before being ordained to the priesthood in 1975. In 1992 he was appointed archbishop of Cape Coast, the former colonial capital of Ghana and a key diocese.
As archbishop, Turkson was known for his human touch, colleagues said. “We love him,” said Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle, the metropolitan archbishop of Accra, who was made archbishop in Ghana at the same time as Turkson and has known him since school. “For Ghanaians he was our first cardinal, and to be made cardinal in his 50s was a big feather in our cap. Since then he has shown himself to be a church leader and a young cardinal breaking new ground.”
The Rev Stephen Domelevo, from the Ghana Catholic communication office, said: “Cardinal Turkson is a wonderful person, very down to earth and humble. He lived in a simple way, and he was someone people felt very comfortable with. He is excellent at communicating scripture in a way that people really understand. He speaks many local languages – as well as European languages – and uses jokes and humour to really portray messages to people. He has that human touch.”
Turkson speaks his native Ghanaian language, Fante, as well as other Ghanaian languages and English, French, Italian, German and Hebrew, as well as understanding Latin and Greek. “Cardinal Turkson likes to be able to joke with people in their own languages,” said Domelevo. “It would not surprise us in Ghana if he were to be the next pope. He has what it takes. It would really be a gift to the church.”
Turkson’s popularity in west Africa has been boosted by his regular television appearances, particularly a weekly broadcast every Saturday morning on the state channel Ghana TV. He has maintained strong ties with his native country while carrying out his duties in the Vatican. “Cardinal Turkson has kept up his links with Ghana,” said Palmer-Buckle. “He comes home as and when his duties allow. He has served as chairman of the national peace council, he has been on the board of our university – he is a very Ghanaian cardinal.”
However, Turkson has not been immune to controversy. He sparked outcry last year when he screened a YouTube film at an international meeting of bishops featuring alarmist predictions at the rise of Islam in Europe. The clip, titled Muslim Demographics, included claims such as: “In just 39 years France will be an Islamic republic.”
Benedict XVI also attracted the ire of Muslims after a 2006 lecture in Regensburg, his former university, in which he used a quotation to suggest that contributions made by the prophet Muhammad were “only evil and inhuman”. Ghana, whose population is roughly 63% Christian – including around 11% Catholic – and 16% Muslim, is known for its relative tolerance and peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians.
Colleagues in Ghana voiced approval for Turkson’s stance on social matters, but said he would be unlikely to take the church in a radical direction on contentious issues such as abortion and contraception. In the past Turkson has not ruled out the use of condoms but advocated abstinence and fidelity, and treatment for HIV-infected people above spending and promoting the use of contraception.
“In matters of scripture and morality, no leader of the church comes to change anything,” said Palmer-Buckle. “But in pastoral matters, that is where the church has been much improved. When dealing with homosexual activity, it is morally wrong. The truth must be spoken but it must be spoken with compassion.”
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images