With Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he is abdicating at the end of February, speculation has already begun on who will fill the Vatican’s top job. And some Vatican-watchers are saying the time may be ripe for a Latin American to lead the Roman Catholic Church.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 73 percent of Latin America is Catholic. The 432 million Catholics in Latin American account for more than 39 percent of the world’s Catholic population. In the United States, Latinos account for nearly a third of all Catholics over 40 and an astounding nearly 50 percent of Catholics under age 40.
“Everybody said Benedict XVI was the transitional pope, the question is transition to what?” says Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, Director of the Research Center for Religion in Society and Culture and Professor Emeritus of Latino Studies at Brooklyn College.
Arroyo believes that it’s time for a transition to a more diverse papacy to meet the needs and deal with the challenges of a changing Catholic Church.
“Church attendance is plummeting in Europe with currently only 20 percent of Catholics going. At the same time, the church is growing in Latin America, in Africa, and in parts of Asia,” Arroyo says. “Now the issue is what direction is the church going to seek: someone who is going to restore what we’ve lost or think constructively about other parts of the world.”
Timothy Matovina, Executive Director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, says that a Latin American pope would energize Latinos around the world.
“Latinos love the pope. When John Paul went to Mexico he drew such a crowd,” Matovina says. “If we get a Latino pope, Latinos in this country would be tremendously enthusiastic to have someone who can also speak to them in their native language.”
Although no official candidates have been announced, several names of Latin American papabili (possible pope contenders) have been floating around.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras): Sacrilegious as it may be, many are already placing their bets on who will be the next pope. Matovina says that the Honduran Cardinal is by far the most popular choice among Latino Catholics due to his large public presence, powerful oratory skills, and progressive perspective. Matovina says that Maradiaga was simply “electrifying” in a speech at a youth and young adult event he attended.
“He came and spoke as a Latin American Honduran bishop and wanted to say what it was like to be a pastor of a country sending immigrants abroad. He said, ‘I want to work with leaders so that you don’t have to leave.’ People were just in tears,” Matovina says. “Imagine the effect on the regular folks out there if that man was the pope.”
Ernesto Valiente, a Professor of Theology with the Hispanic Ministry at Boston College, agrees that Rodriguez is the people’s favorite.
“He is profoundly respected, committed to social justice, to helping the poor. People talk about him with so much optimism,” Valiente says. “Personally, he would be my first choice.”
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Argentina): The Argentinian Cardinal has served since 1998 and has been at the top of many reports outlining possible successors. Like Maradiaga, Bergoglio has also demonstrated a strong commitment to social justice and would bring that agenda to the papacy. According to Valiente, Bergoglio was rumored to have come in a distant second place for the pope in 2005. However, Valiente feels that his age may be an issue.
“He is already 75 years old, so the moment may have passed for him. Nonetheless, he carries the weight and recognition of somebody who is very important,” Valiente explains.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri (Argentina): The 69-year-old Sandri is up with Cardinal Bergoglio as one of the most cited possible contenders. Born in Argentina to Italian parents, Sandri has been a “transatlantic” figure. He has been a Vatican diplomat for many years and currently has the high-ranking position of heading the Vatican’s office for eastern Catholics. He is currently Number 2 in the Vatican Secretary of State’s office.
Cardinal Claudio Hummes (Brazil): Hummes is the current Brazilian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. Although he has kept a relatively low profile, Valiente says that the role of the Brazilian church cannot be ignored.
“Brazil is a very important church for Latin America. The last meeting of the bishops was in Brazil and that was a very important meeting. Brazil is one of the biggest churches they have seen and has been especially significant in the past thirty years,” Valiente says.
Hummes is not the only Brazilian name that has been floated around. Other possible contenders include Odilo Pedro Scherer, the Archbishop of Sao Paolo which is the largest diocese in the country, and prefect Joao Braz de Aviz.
Other top contenders include Cardinal Marc Oullet of Canada, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the U.S., and Cardinal Angela Scola of Milan. But just because they aren’t Latin American doesn’t mean they don’t have strong Latin American ties. According to Valiente, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada is one of the strongest frontrunners and the most likely candidate for the top job. Mario Paredes of the American Bible Society says Oullet lived in Latin America for many years and speaks fluent Spanish.
Still, Latinos like Carmen Aguinaco of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry are hoping that the time has come for a Latino pope.
” The church is so highly concentrated in Latin America, Catholics are growing in the U.S. and Latin America extremely rapidly,” Aguinaco says. “It’s about high time that there’s a Latino pope.”