By Joshua Benton
ENUGU, Nigeria – “The pope is coming! The pope is coming!”
Sister Chinyere was yelling at the television the moment she saw the crawl across CNN’s screen. She and three other Sisters of Divine Love were in the front room of the small hostel they run in this eastern Nigerian city, watching the white smoke rise on a 13-inch set.
It was no secret who the sisters, and most of Africa’s 130 million Catholics, were rooting for: Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. The church’s highest-ranking African, he was the first legitimate black candidate for the papacy in more than a millennium.
Cardinal Arinze was born in the nearby village of Eziowelle and attended seminary here. Nearly all the nuns had occasion to meet him at one time or another.
So one might have expected disappointment at the naming of another European pope – particularly after Cardinal Arinze’s candidacy had been promoted as validation for an entire continent. But there was nothing but joy in the room when it was announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a close adviser to the beloved Pope John Paul II, had become Pope Benedict XVI.
“He is the one!” one nun exclaimed. “He is the one!”
A dozen sisters, smiling broadly, lunged and danced, their robin’s-egg blue habits shaking against the robin’s-egg blue walls. The flop of sandals announced each nun who came running down the tiled hallway.
“I think Ratzinger probably learned a lot sitting beside John Paul, and I think he will be a great pope,” said Sister Chizogie.
During the new pope’s benediction, the Nigerian nuns heartily echoed each “amen” and added a few “viva papas” for good measure.
Some clutched rosaries. Others were on their cellphones, calling sisters who might not be near a television. “New pope” and “CNN” were the only English words; whatever else they said into the phones they said in their native Igbo.
The nuns expressed surprise when it was announced what papal name Cardinal Ratzinger had taken. Sister Okechukwu had been betting on continuity and the unveiling of a John Paul III.
Standing behind the sisters, a man reached into his torn right pants pocket and pulled out a small notepad. He flipped past a few filled pages and slowly wrote it out: “Pope Benedict the 16th.”
Since John Paul’s death, Nigerian Catholics had been torn between opposite hopes.
They wanted their man Arinze to succeed, of course. But they also questioned whether the universal church was ready for a black man to take charge.
“The stage is not right,” Sister Chigozie said. “It would have been a giant shock to the church.
“We are just now in the years of acceptance for Africa in the church. It must move slowly.”