Cardinal Peter Turkson was a soccer-loving 11-year-old when he declared to a playmate after a day running through forest paths near his Ghanaian home village that he would dedicate his life to the Catholic Church.
“He said with a solemn and serious tone after a period of silence, ‘Pawusey, I would like to be a priest,’” Daniel Pawusey, a 61-year-old retired mechanic, said in an interview in the Western village of Nsuta Wassaw. “I didn’t take him seriously. I didn’t quite understand what was at stake.”
Turkson’s journey has taken him from his rural hometown in the West African nation’s mining heartland to the Vatican and now to possibly becoming the world’s first black pope. The 64-year-old is the 2-to-1 favorite to replace Pope Benedict XVI as head of the Catholic Church, according to results today from betting company Paddy Power Plc in Dublin. He’s placed third by London-based William Hill Plc.
More than 200 cardinals began meeting in the Vatican this week to discuss the state of the church and decide on a date to begin the conclave and elect a new pope. Benedict’s successor is expected to be in place by Easter, on March 31, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
Turkson’s advantage stems in part from his insider role. He was named a cardinal in 2003, the first Ghanaian and the youngest African, by Pope John Paul II. Turkson left his position as Archbishop of Cape Coast and became president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2009.
That’s put him a position to advocate, among other things, a global authority to govern world financial policy and curbs on multinational mining companies that push African farmers from their lands. Unlike Benedict, who before becoming pope spent a quarter century as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal policeman, Turkson has been active in the political world. He sought to mediate, for instance, conflict in neighboring Ivory Coast.
When it comes to church doctrine, Turkson may be more willing to push for change than Benedict did, said the Rev. Joseph Arthur, who runs the St. Francis De Sales cathedral in Cape Coast.
“He is quite liberal and can bring reforms through dialogue where he deems necessary, especially issues of whether priests can marry or women becoming priests,” Arthur said. “I also know he will be very traditional and conservative on the church’s position on issues of homosexuality and abortions.”
Africa is becoming more and more important to the church. Catholics make up 13.1 percent of Ghana’s population of 24.6 million and constitute the third-biggest Christian group in the country, after Pentecostals/Charismatics and Protestants, according to the 2010 census.
The number of baptized Catholics in Africa more than tripled from 1980 to 2010 to 186 million, the Vatican said in March 2012, equivalent to the populations of Ghana and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. At the same time, the continent’s population has grown to more than 1 billion in 2010, from about 500 million in 1980, according to the United Nations.
Religious belief “operates at every level of society in Africa,” according to Stephen Ellis, Leiden, the Netherlands-based author of “Worlds of Power,” a study of religious thought in Africa. Many Africans are members of several religious congregations simultaneously and may practice rituals regarded in the west as belonging to different systems of belief, he said in an e-mailed response to questions.
At a service just before 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning last month at St. Francis De Sales, a towering, cream-colored hilltop church in Cape Coast on the Atlantic Ocean, young men in suits and women wearing ankle-length dresses prayed for the man who was ordained a priest in the church in 1975 and went on to become an archbishop 18 years later.
“He has spiritual authority and can be an inspiration to the world,” church administrator Arthur said in an interview after the service. Turkson will become pope if the “Holy Spirit is allowed” to choose, he said.
The fourth of 10 children, Turkson grew up in Nsuta Wassaw where his father, a carpenter, worked at the Ghana Manganese Co., according to a biography from the Archdiocese of Cape Coast. His decision to train for the priesthood “sent shockwaves through the family,” he is quoted as saying in the biography.
“Nobody believed that I, of all the kids, was the one who wanted to go to the seminary,” Turkson said, describing himself as “pretty rough and tough” and “troublesome to the point that the best one could probably do to me was whip me.”
As a teenager, he left for the nearby fishing town of Elmina to enroll at St. Theresa’s Seminary, where his passion for science and mathematics earned him the nickname Archimedes, after the ancient Greek mathematician. In 1973, he and a classmate were sent to New York to obtain a master’s degree in theology.
“Life in New York was really nice and far better than what we knew,” Martin Essilfie, his former classmate and now a priest in the Ghanaian town of Winneba, said in an interview. “We had all the facilities available.” In the U.S., Turkson worked with street children in a black neighborhood, according to the biography.
Turkson’s office in Rome said he wasn’t available for an interview.
Catholicism was brought to Ghana by Portuguese traders, who in 1572 opened a small school in the coastal fort at Elmina that they also used for imprisoning slaves before they were shipped across the Atlantic.
The religion began to spread at the turn of the last century as priests embarked on academic, agricultural and artisanal training missions in the interior, according to a UN report. The Anglican Church, established by British colonial rulers, didn’t make as much of an impact because it built very few schools, the report said. Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to attain independence, in 1957.
Turkson is known as a skilled mediator. He served as general secretary of the Synod of Bishops for Africa and was chairman of Ghana’s National Peace Council, which led negotiations between presidential candidates after a disputed 2008 election. In 2010, Benedict sent him to Ivory Coast, which borders Ghana, to mediate in a political crisis.
As president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Turkson in 2011 called for changes in the way markets are regulated. Economic injustices were creating “a climate of growing hostility,” he told reporters in Rome as he published a document proposing the global authority with universal jurisdiction over financial policy.
Turkson has also criticized multinational mining companies for depriving African farmers of a livelihood. “It’s not only multinationals that are to blame but our governments too,” he told U.S. Catholic magazine in a 2010 interview.
For childhood friend Pawusey, Turkson’s position as a top candidate to lead the church is unprecedented: “My friend with whom I played and ate from the same bowl will rewrite the history of the world.”