African Popes

May 1, 2001
by Corey Gilkes

The Editor

Personally, I hold no brief for the Church or Western Christianity; indeed, I view organised religion with what I call "hostile indifference". I am however, very sensitive about historical accuracy because I know how an immensely powerful tool history can be if one wants to guide, galvanize, manipulate or exploit a people.

In Sunday 29th April's article about Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, it was pointed out that if elected, he will become the first African pope of the Church of Rome.

Now, Church history tells us that there were three African popes of the Roman Church, so there is no way he could be the first person of African descent to be elevated to that position [if ever elected]. Let us not also forget Augustine, Cyprian, Trertullian, Origen and other early Church Fathers from Africa whose writings shaped Christianity to what it is today.

The ignorance of this history stems from the fact that many of the paintings were done by European artists who did not have access to the contemporary paintings and drawings of these bishops. Even Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen and St. Augustine are almost infrequently depicted as white in spite of the fact that they were of African descent.

The first of these African popes was Victor I, who occupied the papal throne from 189-199 CE; he was not called "Pope" at that time - the term was not adopted until later. It was Victor who decided that Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday as opposed to the fourteenthday of the moon, which was how the Asian Christians - called Quartodcimans-observed it. Of course this had nothing to do with who was right or wrong, it had to do with unity in Christendom. According to St. Jerome, Victor, whose feast day is kept on July 28., he was also the first to make Latin the liturgical language of the Church.

Next there was St Miltiades who ascended the throne in 311 CE. During his time on the papal chair, Constantine became Emperor and presented the Roman Church with the Lateran Palace which became the papal residence and administrative centre. He also presided over the controversy surrounding the Donatists schism in Africa and their vehement protests over the appointment of Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage.

The third African pope was St Gelasius I who took office in 492 CE. He was an advocate for the indendence of the Church. His feast day is November 21.

In any event, apart from the fact that Christianity itself was founded upon recycled Kemetic/Egyptian myths, Christianity was flourishing in Africa long before Rome became the seat of the Church. One of the very earliest Christian monastaries was built on the island of Phillae on the Nile river, complete with 27 bishops and 7 patriarchs who were the equivalent of popes. Thus, the remark by John Paul II about the Churches of Africa being new to the faith rings hollow to say the least.

Now, all this may come as a revalation to many Trinidadians because of the ridiculous conservatism of our secular and religious "education". Indeed, when this issue was first surfaced last year in another daily newspaper, the editor of that paper tried to stifle the debate that quickly arose, to the amazement of several foreign-based priests and religious scholars.

There are, of course, a few books on the subject: Popes through the Ages :- Joseph Brusher; No Green Pastures :-Roi Ottley; New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vols VI, IX, XIV; African Presence in Early Europe:- Ivan Van Sertima; The Saints Go Marching In:-Robert Fulton Holtzclaw. There are also a few sites one can visit which also supply a list of African Saints:(

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