The recent announcement that Pope Benedict, a friend to our recently completed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture project, has turned speculation towards who might succeed Benedict. Many are wondering if the cardinals gathered in conclave in the Sistine chapel might select someone from Asia, Latin America, or, perhaps, Africa. One headline even reads "Africa: Pontifex Africanus: Could the Next Pope be African?" (By Luke Lythgoe, 11 February 2013, All Africa.com).
For those who have studied early African Christianity, we know this, of course, would not be the first time an African was named pope. We read in the Liber Pontificalis of three popes who originated from the continent of Africa. Already in the second century we hear of Victor I (ca 186-198 AD), who was the first Latin speaking pope. He most likely came from the Maghreb region of North Africa which includes present day Algeria, Mauretania, Numidia and Tunisia. The native people at the time of the 2nd century would have been Berbers, by and large, although many Romans also owned land in the region that served as their country estates. Most scholars agree, however, that Victor would have been a North African and not a Roman transplant. The 2nd and 3rd centuries were vibrant times for the church in Africa, both in terms of its theology and in terms of its commitment (witness the Scili martyrs, martyred ca 180 AD). Tertullian would have been in his mid-30's around the time of Victor's papacy. In Egypt, to the East on the Continent, the school of Alexandria was flourishing under Origen.
Miltiades (July 2, 310-Jan 10, 314 AD) was the second African bishop. He as well as Victor I is listed as being African in the Liber Pontificalis, although he most likely came from an African family that resided in Rome. He was Pope during the time when Constantine was engaged in his quest to unite the empire. He would have been pope during the time when Constantine fought the famous battle at the Milvian bridge (312 AD). Miltiades, was the one who was asked by Constantine to resolve the issue of the Donatists in North Africa ("Letter of Constantine to Miltiades" in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5), perhaps due to his connections with North Africa.
The Third African Pope is Gelasius (492-496). As the article by Ronzani in the Encyclopedia of the Early Church (which we are currently editing for publication with InterVarsity Press) notes, "The late portrait of the Liber Pontificalis attributes an African origin to Gelasius and gives the name of his father: Gelasius, natione Afer, ex patre Valerio (LP I,255)." There is some debate among scholars such as Nautin as to whether this attribution is to be accepted. He asserts that Gelasius was declared Romanus natus (Roman born), although this need not negate the fact that his family were Africans or at least African born, as Ronzani asserts in his article in the Encyclopedia. Living at the end of the 5th century during Rome's decline as a political power, Gelasius had to contend with the conflict between Odoacer and Theodoric for the control of Italy. Gelasius seems to have gotten along well with the Ostrogoths, for the most part. Gelasius also addressed key doctrinal issues such as the Acacian schism (Acacius was a schismatic bishop of Alexandria) and issues of Christology that had been decided at Chalcedon but not accepted by all.
The African Church had and has a vibrant history in the life of world Christianity. Its three popes, along with countless other African theologians such as Cyprian, Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandrian, etc. are a testament to the gift that Africa has been to world Christianity. Whether the next pope is an African or hails from another continent, the fact remains that African Christianity has brought a wealth of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, piety and enthusiastic leadership that no doubt bodes well for its continuing contribution to the Christian mind and ethos.