The secular media love the idea of Cardinal Peter Turkson being elected pope. At 11/4, he is the bookies’ favourite. But don’t let that put you off. Vatican watchers describe him as charming, smart and humble. His life story, moreover, is an inspiring testament to what a hard-working boy from rural Ghana can achieve.
Born in 1948, he grew up in a village in western Ghana. His father was a miner who did carpentry in his spare time and his mother, a Methodist, sold vegetables at a market. There was no purpose-built school at the time; instead, Turkson was taught lessons in the parish church. A childhood friend, Dunhill Pawosey, said they played in a band together. “I was on drums, and he was on bass,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “We’d play Afrobeat stuff in the 1960s – James Brown, that kind of thing. He liked James Brown a lot.” Pawosey said Turkson was “very smart at school, and always good at Bible study. He was quiet and thoughtful. But he had a quick temper and strong principles. If someone was wrong, he would tell them.”
He said Turkson’s father had a temper, too. “The cardinal has a scar below his left ribs from where his father beat him with a saw,” he recalled.
Turkson studied at a seminary in Saltpond, near Cape Coast, before moving to New York. There, to pay for his Master’s in theology, he found a night job cleaning a bank.
A friend, Dr Joseph Marrota, told the New York Daily News that one night a passerby saw him wandering around the closed bank and called the police. “It was eight or nine o’clock and they wanted to know what he was doing there,” Dr Marrota said. “He told them the truth, that he was cleaning the bank. They were going to arrest him and he had to call the cleaning service. He almost got taken away.”
While in New York he learned Hebrew. To aid his studying, he painted his bedroom wall black so he could use it as a blackboard, writing notes in chalk.
After he finished his course he returned to Ghana, and two years later was ordained a priest. He taught at the country’s main seminary, St Teresa’s, before going to Rome to study scripture. He earned a licentiate – a licence to teach – at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, before lecturing at two seminaries in Ghana.
In 1987 he returned to Rome and, after five years of study, gained a doctorate, again in scriptural studies. Then, in 1992, he was appointed Archbishop of Cape Coast. He held the position for 17 years, becoming president of the bishops’ conference in 1997 and a cardinal in 2003.
Sister Margaret-Rose, who ran Archbishop’s House during his tenure, told the Daily Telegraph that he was a kind boss. “Everyone loved him,” she said. “He surrounded this house with trees because he loved nature. He was very humble and friendly.”
In 2009 Cardinal Turkson was appointed relator for the second synod of bishops on Africa – that is, he shaped the synod by announcing topics for discussion and giving a summary of it at the end. Immediately after that he was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – his first role in the Vatican.
At the time, he was praised by two heavyweight Vatican watchers. John Allen called him a “smart, hard-working and charming prelate”. He said he was “destined to be an ecclesiastical star even if he never takes over the Church’s top job”. Rocco Palmo said he was “celebrated for his intellect, humility and media savvy”, and “already enjoys a global following among those who’ve crossed his path”. He noted that he was fluent in eight languages and was the one of the foremost Scripture scholars in the College of Cardinals.
Cardinal Turkson’s admirers compare him to Blessed Pope John Paul II. Dr Marrota, his friend from New York, now an orthopaedic surgeon, said: “Like John Paul II, he’s an outdoorsman, an athlete, a physically powerful man. He has that unbelievable combination of intellect, character and charisma.” He said the cardinal required only four hours of sleep a night and was comfortable with new technology, using an iPod and an iPad.
Since then, his record has been marred by a series of slight missteps. In 2011 his council issued a document on economic justice that called for a “true world political authority” to regulate the globalised economy. It drew criticism from many, including the theologian George Weigel, who said its proposals had a “distinctly Euro-secular provenance” and dismissed it as emerging from a “rather small office in the Roman Curia”.
Last year Cardinal Turkson faced further criticism when he showed an alarmist YouTube video about the rise of Islam in Europe at a synod on the new evangelisation.
Last week, too, he made a worrying gaffe on clerical sex abuse. Speaking to CNN, he said African taboos on homosexuality had “served to keep it out” of much of Africa. His comments provoked a small outcry.
The cardinal has also been criticised for talking too openly about the possibility of being elected pope. In an interview with the Telegraph two weeks ago he said if he were made pope “it would signal a lot of change, very big change in a lot of regards”. His comments called to mind the saying: “He who goes into the conclave a pope, comes out a cardinal.”