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Is it time for the first African pope?

Gabriel Bouys/ AFP-Getty Images

Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson attends a mass at St. Peter's basilica on Tuesday in Vatican City.

CAPE COAST, Ghana — On Sundays in the Ghanaian city of Cape Coast, the pews in Roman Catholic churches do something most Americans would find surprising. They fill up. 

Unlike the typical 45-minute Mass in the United States, these services are two and a half hours long, but that’s what churchgoers come for. Those who show up late will find a few plastic chairs arranged outside. Better luck next week. 


The West Coast of Africa is one of the only places in the world where Catholicism is growing. Since 2005, the number of Catholics on the African continent has grown by more than 20% and it is expected to continue at that pace for the next decade.


There are also plenty of priests. In fact, seminaries here are producing so many priests, they often move to Europe to fill a growing shortage.

So it’s no surprise, really, that the cardinal from Ghana, Cardinal Peter Turkson, was discussed as a likely candidate for pope in the early days after Pope Benedict announced he was stepping down. It now seems he is a long shot, but there are still plenty of people pulling for him here.

After Mass last Sunday in Cape Coast, the city about 100 miles from Ghana's capital Accra where Turkson served as archbishop, one parishioner summed up his chances this way: "We never thought a half black man would be president of the U.S. But it happened and he is doing okay. So [Turkson] could be the pope."

 

Alberto Pizzoli/ AFP-Getty Images

A mock electoral placard showing Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, which reads, "during the conclave, vote Turkson," seen in front of the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica in Rome on March 1.

From village to archdiocese 
The 64-year-old was born in the small mining village of Nsuta Wassa, in Western Ghana, the fourth of ten children. His father scraped by as a carpenter in a local mine while his mother sold vegetables on the street, sometimes helped by her young son Peter. School was held at the Catholic Church near the foot of the manganese mine. In the afternoons, the future cardinal played soccer and fished with his friends.

Those early years helped shape Turkson, making him as much a social advocate as a leader of the church. Like many African bishops, he has focused on economic equality, environmental issues and peace. Turkson believes the church plays a vital role in stepping up where governments fail.

In the Cape Coast archdiocese, which Turkson ran for nearly two decades, the Catholic Church provides 60-70% of all health and education services. The cardinal helped open Mercy Hospital, a facility that focuses on women’s healthcare.

Patrick Yamoa, the doctor who runs the hospital, says the number of patients served has skyrocketed since its opening two years ago, from 80 people a week to 300 a day. Yamoa said that as a teenager he wanted to become a priest — until he met Cardinal Turkson who convinced the young science whiz to pursue medicine. Ghana was in desperate need of good doctors. 

Just two weeks ago, before heading to Rome for the conclave, Turkson dropped in to check up on the clinic's finances and discovered the hospital needs a new ambulance. Yamoa suspects that with Turkson’s help they will get it by the end of the month.

He's also not surprised the cardinal stopped by even during this very busy time. "That is an attribute that endears him to many people," said Yamoa.

In 2009, Pope Benedict promoted Turkson to President of the Pontifical Council of Peace and Justice. The council focuses on war and good business practices, including the causes of the recent global financial meltdown.

This experience, combined with his pedigree (Turkson speaks eight languages), and the skills he learned as head of a diocese, have led many to consider him a well-rounded candidate for the top job.

But Archbishop Matthias Kobena Nketsiah, the current head of the Cape Coast archdiocese, said he doesn’t believe the Catholic Church is ready for its first black pope. "One problem would be acceptability. That people would accept a black pope…Not everybody. No."

L'Osservatore Romano via AP

Cardinals from around the world gather in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Related: 

 From Rome to Africa: Meet 20 men who could be pope

Conclave smoke signals a bit of a gray area

Full coverage of the papal abdication from NBC News