ROME — With the Nobel Peace Prize committee set to announce its 2015 winner on Friday, Pope Francis is once again seen as a front-runner, a status reinforced by his role in brokering a deal for the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba last December.
While the world may be waiting to see whether the pontiff prevails, Francis is already on record as saying he’s not interested in such honors. He points to candidates he believes are more deserving: the women of Paraguay, whom he credits with “saving the country” during the bloody 19th-century War of the Triple Alliance.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee will reveal the winner at a news conference in Oslo, Norway, at 5 a.m. Eastern time, 11 a.m. Central European Time.
Although the committee does not issue a formal list of candidates, other top contenders this year are believed to include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the principal figures behind a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
Francis might find comfort in the fact that there’s also a Catholic priest among those considered strong contenders this year: Eritrean Rev. Mussie Zerai, who runs a crisis support line that has helped save the lives of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Zerai met Francis at a Vatican-sponsored conference on human trafficking earlier this year. He said the pontiff told him, “Have courage, Father, keep going!”
Last year, betting houses had the Argentine pontiff as a favorite, but this time around most handicappers have Merkel leading the pack — in part for Germany’s role in accepting tens of thousands of migrants during the current refugee crisis.
The Peace Research Institute of Oslo, which issues annual forecasts, announced Merkel as the favorite earlier this month. However, in the past 11 years, only one of the institute’s favorites, former US vice president Al Gore in 2007, actually won.
The institute tapped Francis as the favorite last year, but the award went to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, who shared it “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
The only firm information released by the Nobel committee itself is that there are 273 candidates for the Peace Prize thus year, the second-highest ever after last year’s 278.
Aside from the pontiff’s role in resolving Cold War tensions between Cuba and the United States, there are several other reasons many experts believe he’ll get serious consideration.
They include his call to fight man-induced climate change, expressed in his June encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and in a passionate speech to the United Nations General Assembly, and his strong appeals on various social matters, from the redistribution of wealth to immigration, religious persecution, and corruption.
If Francis does win the peace prize, he’ll be the first pope to ever do so.
Other Catholics of note to have claimed the honor include Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Solidarity founder and former Polish President Lech Walesa, East Timorese Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, Irish politician John Hume, former South Korea president Kim Daejung, and Belgian priest Georges Pire.
Pope St. John Paul II never received the award despite being nominated annually for the better part of two decades, in part because of opposition to some Church teaching by some committee members.
For example, a former member of the Nobel Prize committee, Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo, Norway, publicly vowed in 2001 that no pope would win the award until the Catholic Church changed its teaching on contraception, which he insisted “favors death rather than life.”
Nonetheless, Francis has prominent supporters this time around. While the pontiff was in the United States last month, US Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) circulated a letter to colleagues to nominate Francis for the award.
“Pope Francis has been a powerful advocate for peace, urging an end to conflict and support for constitutive ties among nations,” the letter states. “[His] commitment to nonviolence, which the pope has put into practice every day through his words and actions, is at the core of the principles behind the Nobel Peace Prize.”
During a 2014 interview in the Argentinian magazine Viva, Francis refused to even speculate about what he might do in case he’s awarded the prize, which comes with a $1 million cash award.
“I’ve never accepted honorary titles,” he said. “I don’t really think about those things, and even less about what I might do with that money. The thing is, regardless of any award, I believe we should all be committed to global peace. We should all give peace a chance.”
On background, Vatican officials say it’s unlikely that Francis would agree to travel to Oslo to accept the award.
Francis has, however, said who he believes should win it: the women of Paraguay. He said so in 2014 to Carlos and Rodolfo Luna, two Argentine friends visiting him at the Vatican.
During his trip to Latin America in July, which included a stop in Paraguay, he repeated the praise.
“Here I would like especially to mention you, the women, wives, and mothers of Paraguay,” he said, “who at great cost and sacrifice were able to lift up a country defeated, devastated, and laid low by war.”