VATICAN CITY — One of Africa's brightest hopes to be the next pope, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, says the time is right for a pontiff from the developing world, and that he's up for the job "if it's the will of God."
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, the day after Pope Benedict XVI announced he would soon resign, Turkson said the "young churches" of Africa and Asia have now become solid enough that they have produced "mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership also of this world institution."
The church in the Third World doesn't need a pope of its own to thrive, he said. It's done just fine growing exponentially with European pontiffs. But Turkson said a pope from the global south, where half of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live, would "go a long way to strengthen them in their resolve."
Turkson, 64, became Ghana's first cardinal when he was elevated by Pope John Paul II in 2003, while he was archbishop of Cape Coast. Six years later, Benedict tapped him to head the Vatican's peace and justice office, which tackles issues such as the global financial meltdown, armed conflicts and ethical codes for the business world.
It has earned him the unofficial role of being the social conscience of the church.
During his tenure, however, Turkson has raised eyebrows with his occasional blunt talk.
Last year, he caused a major stir during a meeting of the world's bishops by screening an alarmist video about the inroads Islam is making in Europe and the world. He apologized, but the gaffe may have ended his hopes as a papal contender: Even Vatican Radio called the film a "4-year-old, fear-mongering presentation of statistics" that have been widely debunked.
Benedict, however, clearly thinks highly of him.
In 2009, the pope gave Turkson the high-profile job of running the biannual meeting of bishops to discuss the challenges of the Catholic Church in Africa. A year later, Benedict named him a member of one of the Vatican's most important boards, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict once headed.
Benedict's bombshell announcement that he would resign Feb. 28 has set the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope likely before the end of next month.
On Tuesday, Turkson fielded a steady stream of TV crews and journalists and gamely responded to a host of questions about the qualities of the next pope.
The media interest may have been whetted by the high marks British bookmakers gave Turkson in the hours after the announcement: William Hill made Turkson its 3/1 favorite Monday, followed by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a serious papal contender at 7/2. Ladbrokes also had Turkson as its favorite.
Speculation about the possibility of a pope from the developing world has swirled for years, as that is where the Catholic Church is growing most: In Africa, between 1978 and 2007, the number of Catholics grew from 55 million to 146 million. Latin America counts 40 percent of the world's Catholics. By contrast, Catholic communities in Europe are in decline.
In 1978, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Cardinals followed in 2005 by electing the German-born Benedict.
Whether the European-heavy College of Cardinals will look outside Europe for Benedict's successor is an open question. There is speculation that the Italians may recapture the papacy with strong contenders such as Milan's archbishop, Cardinal Angelo Scola, a serious intellect who is leading Italy's largest and most important archdiocese.
But as in 2005, there is once again clamoring for a pope from the developing world to represent the majority of the world's Catholics and give a nod to the part of the world where the church is growing.
"I think in a way the church is always and has forever been ready for a non-European pope," Turkson said.
Already, a handful of Vatican offices, aside from his own, are headed by prelates from the developing world: Another papal contender, Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, heads the Vatican's office for religious congregations, while Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, heads the Vatican's office for Eastern rite churches.
"Although the majority is still Italian or European, we still have a growing number of Africans and people from Asia and Latin America in the Roman Curia," Turkson said. "If we're talking specifically about the pope himself, I don't think we're too far away from that, either."
He laughs when asked about speculation that he himself is a contender.
"I've always answered 'if it's the will of God,'" he said. But turning serious, he said the job is difficult, and few would look for it willingly. And he may be running the risk of jinxing himself, following the conventional wisdom that he who enters a conclave a pope leaves a cardinal.
"Being the pope of the church is not going to be an easy task," given the challenges ahead. Prime among them, he said, is restoring the church's credibility, crushed after the clerical sex abuse scandal which drove away thousands of faithful.
"We need to repair our credibility," Turkson said. "Our pastors need to be believed in again and recognized and taken seriously. If we say we are celibate clergy, we need to live faithfully to that celibacy. There's one thing we can't compromise on and that's our credibility."
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