Were there any Black popes?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 2, 2022

Diversity in the church has deep roots

“The Meeting of St. Erasmus and St. Maurice” was painted by Matthias Grunewald, between 1520 and 1524, for the Halle Cathedral in Magdeburg, Germany. St. Maurice is the city’s patron. It is now in the Alte Pinakotek museum in Munich. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On Feb. 8, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita. February is also Black History Month in the United States.

St. Bakhita was born in Sudan around 1869 and kidnapped by slave traders as a child. She was eventually taken to Italy by the family of the Italian vice consul, who had purchased her. This family gave her to another family. When they returned to Sudan, they wanted to take Josephine back with them, but she refused. A court case eventually determined that she had been born after slavery was outlawed in Sudan and she was truly free. She then joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Italy. She served as a cook and doorkeeper for the community. In 2000, St. John Paul II canonized her.

St. Josephine Bakhita is one of several saints of African descent. Some are familiar, such as St. Benedict the Moor and St. Charles Lwanga of Uganda (martyred in 1886), while some are less so — such as St. Monica and her son, St. Augustine. At least three popes were African by birth.

Now, being African by birth, especially in the early centuries of the Catholic Church, did not always mean one was Black — because these areas were part of the Roman Empire, which was well traveled. Still, these saints’ African background should be acknowledged.

The earliest of these would be the Scillitan Martyrs. They died in Carthage, in northern Africa, in the year 180, for refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the Roman emperor. These 12 men and women, from Numidia, now part of Tunisia and Algeria, are honored on July 17.

There was also St. Cyprian of Carthage, martyred under the Emperor Valerian in the year 258. St. Anthony of Egypt, called the “Father of Monks,” lived as a desert hermit from the age of 20 until he died at the age of 105. There is also St. Mary of Egypt, who had been a prostitute before discovering Christianity. She also retreated into the desert and lived there in prayer for nearly 50 years, dying in the year 21.

  1. Felicity and Perpetua were two Christian women — one a slave and one wealthy. Both were martyred in the year 203. They lived in Carthage in northern Africa, now part of Tunisia. Both were Christians and were arrested during persecutions under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. Felicity was pregnant at the time, but gave birth to a daughter just before her execution in the arena. Her daughter was given to other Christians and raised. Perpetua was also a young mother. Today the two are among only seven female saints whose names are part of the Roman Canon — the First Eucharistic Prayer.

St. Monica (d. 387) and her son, Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), were also from what is now Algeria. Both were converts to the faith — though it took many years and much prayer on the part of Monica to win her son away from carousing to believe in God. (Hippo is now Anabas in Algeria.) Augustine is one of the great theologians of the church. He is one of the 37 doctors of the church and author of “Confessions” and “The City of God.”

St. Maurice and the Theban Legion were from Egypt. They became Roman soldiers in the third century and were sent to what is now Switzerland (then Roman Gaul) to put down a rebellion. While there, they were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor. They refused and were executed, in tenths of their total number — until all, 6,066, died. This is where the word“decimated” (from the Latin decimate or “taken as a tenth”) comes from. St. Maurice is honored at the Cathedral in Magdeburg, Germany. His statue there, dating to the 13th century, shows him as Black.

Another interesting saint is St. Moses the Black, born in Ethiopia in the third century. He grew up to be a thief, before he was converted to Christianity. He then joined a monastic community in Egypt, where he lived until his death as a martyr in the year 405. Legend says that he died defending his monastery from attackers.

Then there were the three popes of African birth. All of them are saints.

Pope Victor I was the 14th pope, and ruled the church from 189 to 199 A.D. He was born in the Africa Proconsularis of Rome, which today includes Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. Pope Victor is best known for setting the date of Easter on a Sunday. Prior to this, there had been disputes about whether to celebrate the feast on Passover — the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan — or on a Sunday near it.

Pope Miltiades was the 32nd pope and headed the church from 311 to 314 A.D. He was born in Africa and was the first pope to have an official residence in Rome, thanks to the Emperor Constantine and his mother, St. Helen. Miltiades is said to have lived in the Lateran Palace, making it the first official papal residence. It remained so for 1,000 years and was the site of the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929. This treaty formed the Vatican City State. Miltiades is considered the founder of the Basilica of St. John Lateran and was the last pope to be buried in the catacombs in Rome.

Pope Gelasius was the 49th pope and is believed to have been either born in Rome or in Africa, but was definitely a Roman citizen of African descent. He was pope from 492 to 496 A.D. and was devoted to the Mass. He wrote many hymns and prayers and even arranged a missal. He also ordered that the Eucharist be received under both species. The Gelasian Sacramentary from the eighth century is named in his honor.

There are many other saints of African background. They, along with all the other saints from around the world, have enriched the body of Christ. 

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; stbensparishmilwaukee.org; Catholic.org; religionnews.com; catholicnewsherald.com; ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today; franciscanmedia.org; washingtonpost.com; catholicnewsagency.com; britannica.com; and weaponsandwarfare.com.

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