This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. After Pope Benedict's surprise resignation announcement, attention has turned to people who might succeed him as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict will step down at the end of the month. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that the names of two African cardinals are being mentioned as possible papal contenders.


OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Children through the brass band play a hymn before Ash Wednesday mass this week, signaling the start of the fasting period of Lent. At Mary Mother of Good Counsel School it's one of a number of respected Roman Catholic educational establishments in Ghana's capitol overseen by the archdiocese and the Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra, Charles Palmer-Buckle. Trained as a priest at Pontifical Universities in Rome, the archbishop is upbeat about the continent's contribution to the Catholic Church.

ARCHBISHOP CHARLES PALMER-BUCKLE: The pope himself said that he considered Africa the spiritual lungs of humanity. Africans have something, a culture of spirituality, which means that the pope has a lot of expectation that Africa has something to offer humanity, to give humanity a good breath of life, a new breath of life.

QUIST-ARCTON: With more than 150 million Catholics in Africa and counting, the continent is the fastest growing region for Catholicism in the world, and global bookies are putting the odds on the next Catholic pontiff coming perhaps from Africa. Father Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church."

I called him up at Georgetown University.

FATHER THOMAS REESE: Many people look to Africa because that's the place where the church is growing and is very lively, so some people say, well, it's time then for a pope from Africa. On the other hand, there are also other people who say no, no, no, Africa's doing fine, leave it alone. What we really need is somebody who can deal with the problems of the church which are in the first world, in Europe and the United States. So I think that argument is going to go on during the conclave.

QUIST-ARCTON: The conclave is the gathering of cardinals who are under 80 years old with a vote to elect a new pope. Names that keep popping up as possible African candidates include 80-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria, and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson. Now, Turkson is youngish by Vatican standards at 64 and already has considerable experience running an archdioceses.

In 2009, the pope appointed him to head the influential Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Cardinal Turkson was questioned by the BBC about his chances at being the next pontiff.

CARDINAL PETER KODWO APPIAH TURKSON: Every ordained bishop can be the next pope. In that sense, as long as I'm a bishop and a cardinal, I'm a candidate with all the cardinals and bishops around the world.

QUIST-ARCTON: Pushed a little, Cardinal Turkson added...

TURKSON: This is time for a lot more prayer than speculation. If it comes to looking for leadership, it could be from Africa, it could be from Latin America, it could be from Asia, it could be from anywhere, but we leave it to God and his freedom to give to the Church the leader that would best serve humanity and the task of the Church in history.


QUIST-ARCTON: After mass back home in Accra, Ghana this week, Catholic worshippers shared their views about the possibility of an African becoming pope.

MARILYN OFORI: My name is Marilyn Ofori. Considering the fact that the Catholic Church has a lot of hope in Africa, I think there's a very big possibility of us getting an African pope. I think he'll make a lot of difference and then use our African values as well to better the Catholic Church.

QUIST-ARCTON: And so who do you think that pope might be?

OFORI: Well, coming from Ghana I would say Cardinal Turkson has a bigger chance.

QUIST-ARCTON: As fellow band members, when they were trainee priests at the seminary, Accra's Metropolitan Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle used to sing vocals alongside Cardinal Turkson's bass guitar. With a chuckle in his voice, Archbishop Palmer-Buckle says he's having a little trouble with his prayers these days, but he's hopeful.

PALMER-BUCKLE: Oh, I've been sitting here and I don't even know how to pray, whether to ask God please give us an African pope or tell God, dear Lord may your will be done. But I would say, dear Lord, if you would listen to me, how about anAfrican pope? I don't think it is out of question.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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