With reference to Tony Barrett’s letter (MW last week), the issue of black Popes is by no means clear-cut. The simple fact is that nobody knows for sure whether Victor, Militiades or Gelasius were actually black Africans, though it is accepted that they are likely to have hailed from “Africa”.
It is worth noting that “Africa” at that time was a
province of the Roman Empire, which corresponded roughly to present-day northern Tunisia and the Mediterranean coast of Libya. It is likely that the citizens of “civilized” Rome began calling the entire northern African coast Africa (eventually applying the name to the continent).
It is likely that the popula-tion of this area at the time was largely Phoenician, rather than black African.
The Liber Pontificalis, a collection of Papal biographies from St Peter to the 15th century, does state that Gelasius was African by descent, though Gelasius himself stated in a letter that he was “Romanus natus” (Roman-born). Another theory is that he might have been Roman-born of African parentage.
In short, you might very well have been correct in your assertion about Cardinal Arinze – had he been elected!
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