What popes were born in Africa

Bergoglio is not the first non-European to sit in the Petri chair

Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina's capital Buenos Aires, is the first non-European Pope in 1,272 years, according to church historian Rupert Klieber.

At that time there was with Gregory III. between 731 and 741 a pope from Syria was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Even if there was already a series of non-European popes - located entirely until the middle of the 8th century - the election of a Latin American as pope is a novelty in world history. The previous non-European popes come from Asia and Africa. For the Viennese church historian Klieber, the election reflects "the development of the papacy as a whole", as he said in the Kathpress conversation.


Church historian Rupert Klieber

“Up to the middle of the 8th century AD, Rome was part of the entire imperial church and ultimately also dependent on Eastern Rome, i.e. on Byzantium and Constantinople. In the 7th and 8th centuries a number of popes came from the east, from Syria. There were also quite a few Greeks in the chair of Peter, of whom it is not always known exactly whether they were European Greeks or those from Asia Minor, ”said the church historian from the University of Vienna.

Reorientation in the 8th century

The turning point for the reorientation of the papacy can be dated to the middle of the 8th century, parallel to the political upheaval in Europe, as Klieber explained: “The papacy oriented itself towards the new political centers in Western Europe, towards the Franks, which with the Carolingians became the new great power in Europe. With this, the eastern patriarchates also disappeared from view and with this the actual papacy begins as a purely European institution, ”said the church historian.

From then on, only Latins were appointed to the chair of Peter, most of them came from Italy, but there were also a few Spaniards or Germans. "The new political rulers in Europe got their legitimacy from the popes and positioned themselves as the great patrons of the Roman popes," said Klieber on the mutual relationship between "throne" and "altar" in the Christian West.

The first Pope came from Asia

The first Pope was of course a non-European: Simon (Cephas) ​​Peter came from Capernaum and thus from Asia. In the first and second centuries AD, the popes Evaristus (around 100), he was probably of Jewish descent, and Anicetus (around 155 to 166) came from Asia, the latter from Homs in Syria. With Victor I (approx. 189 to 199) a pope came from the African continent for the first time. Pope Miltiades (310 to 314) also came from Africa.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the importance of Eastern Europe is clearly evident in the frequent number of popes from Asia: Theodor I (642 to 649) was born in Jerusalem and is of Greek descent, Sergius I (687 to 701) originally came from Palermo and is of Syrian descent. Syria is also the country of origin of Popes Sisinnius (708), Constantinus I (708 to 715), Gregory III. (731 to 741) and the antipope Constantine II (767 to 768).

By the middle of the 8th century there were eight popes born in Asia and two in Africa. With Peter and Evarist there were two popes who were Jews. Five popes - and an antipope at that - came from Syria.

Pope from Latin America is a novelty

Admittedly, there was never a Pope from Latin America before Francis. For the church historian Rupert Klieber this is an “interesting and strong signal”. “After he was already in discussion at the last conclave, the election is, as it were, eight years late. Last time he would have been a little younger too. The new Pope has already sent a strong signal in the direction of social responsibility, ”said Klieber.

According to his expectation, Pope Francis is unlikely to become "not a pope of great reforms, but of great gestures." The naming suggests one of the most famous saints in the history of Christianity. Francis of Assisi was perhaps the "most Christ-like of the saints", his name stands for the care for the poor and the preservation of creation. An ordinal number is currently not required for Pope Francis: "As long as there is no second, you don't need an ordinal number," said Klieber.