If numbers were used to choose the next pope, he might come from Latin America.
Four in 10 Catholics live in Latin America, more than any other region, and it is home to the countries with the two largest Catholic populations, Brazil and Mexico, respectively.
Yet, few Latin Americans are betting that one of the region’s 19 cardinals will replace Pope Benedict XVI in March when the papal conclave convenes. And few seem to mind.
Latin American Catholic leaders, scholars, and laypeople told Catholic News Service that, more important than seeing one of their cardinals become pope, is having a pope that understands the region.
Some expressed hope that the next pope would grant more autonomy to local churches and more widely recognize Latin America’s importance to the universal church—for both its size and for its contributions to church doctrine. Their sentiments reflected a sense of detachment from the Vatican, perceived as being Eurocentric and often out of touch with social issues that continue to trouble the region.
“Independently of where the pope comes from, he will be the pope for all if he is able to understand the concerns of Latin America,” said Father Roger Araujo, a priest in Lorena, Brazil.
“The people of Brazil hope the pope will understand the yearnings of the modern world,” he said.
Across the region, Catholics are looking for a leader they can connect with in more meaningful ways.
“What Latin Americans seek is a pope who is more present, a warmer church,” said Osvaldo Luiz, a former seminarian and now editor Cancao Nova magazine, a monthly publication in Brazil.
Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, Mexico, told Catholic News Service the next pope should be a person with a vision and knowledge for the church as a whole, along with the problems facing all parts of the world.
He suggested the Vatican should “look to strengthen local churches.”
Bishop Vera Lopez discarded the suggestion of a crisis in the region. The church “had a very good application of what is contained in the Second Vatican Council,” he said.
Pope Benedict’s announcement of his resignation led to speculation that the next pope could come from Africa or Latin America, regions that make up the majority of church rolls, but that have proportionally little representation in Rome.
“It could be time for a black pope, a yellow pope, a red pope or, also, a Latin American pope,” Guatemala City Archbishop Oscar Vian Morales quipped to local reporters after the pope’s resignation was announced. “It could be time for a pope from another continent.”
The region presents a complicated picture for the church. Despite boasting around 432 million Catholics, Latin America is seeing adherents flee the church. In former strongholds like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Central America, millions have left in favor of growing evangelical Protestant denominations or secularism. Poverty, while lessening, still plagues growing cities and urban populations. Youth are increasingly skeptical of the church and its messages.
Evelyn Gonzalez was raised Catholic but left because she disagreed with the church on issues such as condoms and abortion. She described herself as unchurched.
“I felt like I wasn’t being honest because there were things that I didn’t agree with that they were saying. But I kept going to church, I suppose because I was so accustomed to it,” Gonzalez said in an interview in downtown Santo Domingo, not far from Latin America’s oldest Catholic cathedral.
Reaching people like Gonzalez should be a priority, Catholic leaders said, even if there is disagreement on how to do so.
Some interviewed by Catholic News Service said they saw little need for the next pope to change the church’s approach to Latin America.
Vanessa Ozelin of the Pantokrator Catholic Community, a lay association founded in 1990 in Sao Paulo, said she would like to see the next pope continue the work of Pope Benedict.
“We hope the church continues with the same teachings and direction seen with Benedict XVI,” Ozelin said. “He is an inspiration to all of us.”
Others interviewed suggested providing a greater role for laypeople.
“The future of the church is in the hands of laypeople, particularly lay women,” said Father Pablo Richard, a Chilean theologian who heads a think tank San Jose, Costa Rica.
One of those women, Wilma Izzo, president of the Legion of Mary in Jundiai, Brazil, said it is important that the next pope focus on young people.
“I hope the new pope will work more with the youth, render them more attention,” she said. “Some of them are very lost, they don’t even know who God is. The new pontiff should encourage these youths to find out more about God and his teachings.”
Some observers have said Pope Benedict, who visited Latin America a year ago, failed to connect with people in the region the way his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II did. He did win over many, however, in part, by his special gestures such as donning a mariachi sombrero and speaking briefly in Spanish, said Bernardo Barranco, a newspaper columnist who follows the church.
Mexicans “want to be loved, spoiled, taken into account,” Barranco said.
But neither pope did much to close the distance Latin Americans feel from the Catholic hierarchy, said Jose Maria Poirier, director of Criterio, a Catholic magazine in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“The central church, the curia, is still very Eurocentric. That became more firmly entrenched during the last two papacies,” he said.
Through the work of agencies like Caritas, the church plays an important role in Argentina, but ordinary people do not feel particularly close to the Vatican, he said.
“We have bishops (in Latin America) who are very close to Rome and who tend not to take an independent stance” or disagree with the Vatican, said Jesuit Father Antonio Delfau, editor of Mensaje, a Catholic magazine in Santiago, Chile.
The South American nation has seen percentage of people identifying themselves as Catholics fall from nearly 70 percent in 2002 to around 60 percent in 2012, according to preliminary census estimates. There, the church’s reputation has been damaged by recent sex scandals.
Similarly, decreases have been recorded in Catholic strongholds Mexico and Brazil. Today, 73 percent of Latin America is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
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