Lessons from Pope Benedict XVI and the Papal Election

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By Aniedi Okure, OP, Executive Director

On February 10, 2013 Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world by announcing that he would relinquish the office of Bishop of Rome effective February 28, 2013, citing among other reasons, the need for one who is strong enough to meet the challenges of the “Petrine” Ministry. Along with the announcement, he also summoned the Cardinals to initiate a process of electing a new Pope so the work can continue. We recall that he was elected to the office for life, that there was no opposition planning a coup d’état, no “Vatican Spring”, no “Occupy Vatican”. Yet he decided to step aside for the good of the people. Pope Benedict XVI’s action is not only a courageous and selfless act but demonstrates a deep love for the people and an understanding that leadership is for service. 

The Process of Choosing a Successor

Following the Pope’s renunciation, the cardinals gathered from all over the world, from a variety of cultures, languages, nationalities and races to deliberate and select a new leader. There were no TV ads, no negative campaigning, no rallies to flex political muscle before the electorate, and no name callings. Within two days, they had chosen a new “Bishop of Rome from a distant land” as Pope Francis put it. The Cardinals understood that the ministry of the church and service to the people outweighs any national, cultural, racial or ideological affiliations.

Once elected by a 2/3 majority, there were no challengers in the court of the election outcome, no accusations of rigging or foul play. As a show of solidarity the cardinals rallied behind the one they had chosen and accompanied him to present him to the people. Ironically, the church which is not generally associated with democracy, in this instant, is the great teacher in democratic process and it does so at the highest level of church leadership.

A Lesson for African Leaders

What happened at the Vatican within a month is a great lesson for lifelong African presidents, losers of elections and challengers of winners. Today Africa has five presidents who have been in office for decades: Uganda (27), Cameroon (29), Zimbabwe (31), Angola (32), and Equatorial Guinea (32). Others have used the advantage of the presidency to suppress opponents. The courage of Pope Benedict XVI to relinquish the office for which he was elected for life should be a great lesson for African leaders.

Equally, the process of electing a new Pope should serve as a guide to Africa’s electoral process. If the cardinals could select someone “from far away” to serve as Bishop of Rome, Africa’s electorate should not find it difficult to elect one from within to serve as leader.

Another important lesson from the Papal election is the show of allegiance. Once elected, the cardinals lined up behind the Pope to present him to the world. No one challenged the elected, no one cried foul, no one shouted “it was rigged”, “unfair”, or “I demand a recount.” What a lesson for politicians especially Africa’s political leaders and Africa’s self-declared life-long presidents.

This article was first published in AFJN’s January-March Newsletter.

To watch the Straight Talk Africa interview featuring Rev. Okure on this topic click here.

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