Cardinal Peter Turkson, a 64-year-old Ghanaian prelate, is the bookmaker's early favourite to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.
He told The Daily Telegraph Tuesday that his biggest challenge, should he be elected, would be to maintain an orthodox Catholic doctrine while "at the same time knowing how to apply it so that you do not become irrelevant in a world that has continuous changes".
Cardinal Turkson, who holds one of the most important jobs in the Roman Curia and has been repeatedly promoted by Pope Benedict, was quick to take a conservative line on gay marriage and other "alternative lifestyles".
"We need to find ways of dealing with the challenges coming up from society and culture," he said, adding that the Church needed to "evangelise", or convert, those who had embraced "alternative lifestyles, trends or gender issues". He added: "We cannot fail in our task of providing guidance."
Cardinal Turkson has caused controversy in the past both by screening a video claiming that Europe faced being overrun by Muslims and by insisting that condoms were not the solution to preventing HIV.
The African prelate said he had reflected on the enormous personal burden of becoming the leader of the Catholic Church. "It would certainly mean a lot if I had to be a pope," he said. "If I was elected pope it would signal a lot of [personal] change. Very big change in a lot of regards. I have been an archbishop, which involved a certain amount of leadership and now having to do this on a world level, the dimensions expand almost infinitely.
"It is going to be a life-changing experience and I think that is what it has been for Benedict and those who have gone before us. The challenge will also be with the individual to want to make his mark, not trying to fit into anybody's shoes but finding his own shoes to wear."
Cardinal Turkson also said the Vatican needs to "restore and repair" an image that has been "badly compromised by recent scandals".
Pope Benedict's eight-year papacy saw controversies over paedophile priests, a tense relationship with the Muslim world, and the conviction of his butler for stealing documents that revealed corruption at the top of the Vatican.
"[We need] to relevantly address issues and the credibility of our own ministry and leadership," said Cardinal Turkson. "The Church, if you adopt the imagery of a boat, is going through quite a bit of a storm and it does not appear to be over yet," he said.
"In Europe, churches are getting empty, the population appears not to relate much to the Church and to religion and all of that –that is an issue to deal with. In the new churches, Latin America, Africa and Asia, where the Church appears to be growing there is also the challenge of being able to maintain membership. Whoever succeeds Benedict will not lack challenges and they are an invitation to creativity and innovation."
He acknowledged that he will be in the running when 118 cardinals enter into a conclave in the Sistine Chapel next month to select their next leader.
"It is a possibility [that there will be an African pope]," he said. "Already at the last conclave there was a move to have a candidate from the southern half of the globe," he said. But he pointed out that there is constant speculation over the idea of an African pope.
"Before I got here there was a young African cardinal called Arinze from Nigeria. And at every conclave everybody was talking about him as an emerging candidate. Arinze is now 80 and actually there is no way he can participate in the conclave. So after Arinze another African shows up in the Vatican, now there are actually two of us, there is a cardinal from Guinea. So again there is speculation."
GJ - I was ready to predict a Third World pope coming out of this conclave, even before I saw this article. I thought so last time, when Benedict was elected, after making a deal to appoint a liberal to replace him in the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition (original title).
They toned it down to Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Third World Christian congregations are growing fast, but the decadent West is declining. In addition, there is a gulf between the two. The Ethiopians just broke with ELCA over the gay issue, something ELCA cannot understand.
African Episcopalians are incensed over the US Episcopal election of gay bishops, soon to happen in England. Sure, they had them before, but they are emptying the closets now.