In Catholic stronghold, the case for a Latin pope
The cardinals' conclave begins Monday to select the next head of the Roman Catholic Church.
SANTA LUCIA, HONDURAS
The cardinals don't gather in the Sistine Chapel to select a successor to Pope John Paul II until Monday, but Ana Virginia Echeverria says she doesn't need to wait for a puff of white smoke to know what's in store.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's Latin America's time," says Ms. Echeverria, perched in the front pew of Iglesia Santa Lucia, an 18-century church here in Honduras. A member of the church band, she tunes her guitar, strumming an F-sharp chord, and adds, "I feel it in my knee."
For many Latin American Catholics, it is indeed their time. As many as 450 million of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in Latin America, leading many here to say that the next pope should - and will - be one of them. But their preference is about more than sheer numbers. While the top issues in the US and European Catholic communities are things like homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and the sex-abuse scandal, Latin Catholics are focused on poverty, corruption, gangs, and drugs - not to mention the competition for believers with successful evangelical churches. In Africa, disease, war, famine, and the spread of Islam can be added to that list of concerns.
There is a growing clamor for a different kind of pope, says the Rev. Jose Jesus Mora, spokesman for the diocese in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. The next pontiff, he says, should not only understand the issues that affect most Catholics today, but come from among them.
"Some of the European cardinals visit and empathize," says Father Mora. "But more often they fly in and out for a ceremony, if they come at all. They are not truly familiar with us and our villages of the faithful."
"The future of the Catholic Church is in the southern hemisphere," agrees David Carrasco, professor of Latin American studies at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "And if the new pope does not come from that future, then the church will continue to lose ground to movements and churches that speak to the long, unrelenting agony of many types of colonialism."
A brown mutt races down the center nave of the Church of Santa Lucia, skidding down the polished tile and heralding the way for Father Miguel Herrera. He walks in from the blinding morning sunshine, spreads his arms, and blesses the congregation. "No one believed 26 years ago we would have a Polish pope ... and yet God chose him," he says. "The Latin American moment is arriving." Just the mere notion, he adds, forming a cross in the air, "is strengthening our faith."
A handful of cardinals from Latin America are said to be among the contenders to be the next pontiff. They include Mexico City's conservative Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera; Archbishop Claudio Hummes of São Paulo, Brazil, a defender of trade unions and the poor; and Argentina's José Mario Bergoglio, a member of the Jesuit order who studied chemistry and travels around Buenos Aires by bus.
Then there is Honduras's Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga, a charismatic left-leaning intellectual who speaks eight languages; flies light aircraft; and holds degrees in philosophy, theology, clinical psychology, and psychotherapy. Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga has presided over the Latin American bishops' conference, and once campaigned for Third World debt relief alongside U2's Bono.
"What more could you want?" asks guitarist Echeverria, launching into a hymn. "He is the right one."
Margarita Ochos, the band's tambourine player and mother of 12 who walks two hours to church in flip-flops from her mountain village, is even more emphatic. If Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga is chosen, she says, "We will throw the house out the window" - that is, in Honduras-speak, they will party.
But Brazil's Cardinal Hummes has pointedly said the next pope's nationality is not important: "The church is by definition universal. So ... the most important thing is that we elect the most ideal man, regardless of where he is from," he said before heading off to Rome for Monday's conclave.
"Sheer diplomacy," responds Mora to such statements. "Of course, we must all pray for a pope who will uphold the dignity of man and the sanctity of the church. But in our hearts, there is a different beat."
Even as excitement and anticipation soar, many Catholics here already are steeling themselves for disappointment. It's a reflex tied, perhaps, to an sense of inferiority born of the 16th-century conquests. The Europeans who colonized Latin America killed millions in the New World as they imposed Catholicism on its people. Local self-esteem was further damaged by the church's unequal treatment of those it conquered.