Pope Benedict on Saturday appointed a Ghanaian cardinal to one of the most influential jobs in the Vatican, increasing the possibility that the next pontiff might be a black man.
The Vatican said Benedict had named Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Cape Coast, Ghana, to head the Justice and Peace Commission, a position roughly equivalent to justice minister.
Turkson, Ghana’s first cardinal, becomes only the second African to head Justice and Peace, a department which advises the pope and Vatican on justice issues and prepares documents on topics such as human rights, immigration and law.
Turkson, 61, has just completed a high-profile stint as the relator, or secretary general, of the three-week synod on Africa that ends on Sunday.
Turkson had already been tipped in Church circles to be a strong candidate for the papacy after the death of the current pope.
The new appointment, following the synod job, will give him increased visibility in the Roman Catholic Church and around the world.
Turkson was born in Ghana and educated there as well as in the United States and at pontifical universities in Rome.
The Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than on any other continent and Turkson has years of experience in relations with Islam, an attribute which should stand him in good stead for a shot at the papacy.
At the start of the synod three weeks ago, Turkson was asked if, after Barack Obama became the first black U.S. president, the next pope could be an African. He answered: “Why not?”
There have been only two African popes in the history of the Church, the last in the fifth century. Many in the Church believe the next pope should come from a developing country in order to draw more attention to the plight of the poor.