In Catholic stronghold, the case for a Latin pope
The cardinals' conclave begins Monday to select the next head of the Roman Catholic Church.
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"Although I have as much hope as the next," says Mora, "I would bet all my money and my car on [German Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger as a transitional pope. I don't think the Vatican is ready for a Latin American quite yet."Skip to next paragraph
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"We are ready to take on this responsibility of leadership," says Father Herrera. "But I am not sure about the rest of the Catholic world. You might venture to say the majority don't even know where Honduras is."
"Europe still underestimates us," adds Gabriela Flores, Santa Lucia's librarian. She stayed up Saturday night cutting out letters from colored paper to spell "Don't be afraid! Open the doors to Christ" to tape on the front of the church on Sunday. "They think we are too underdeveloped and not competent enough."
It's a sentiment echoed around the continent. Herminio dos Anjos, a baker in São Paulo complains that power is too concentrated in the hands of the Europeans, particularly Italians. He argues it's time to open up the church, especially to Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world. Mexico is the second largest.
"Our time has come," he says. "If this Pope isn't from Latin America then the next one will be."
It was only during John Paul II's 26-year reign that Latin Americans, like others in the developing world, truly began to feel understood by, and important to, the church they had grown to love - and allow themselves to articulate the expectation of greater leadership within it.
"John Paul II taught us we were equals. And today, with our strong faith and values, we are ready to show the Catholic world the way," says Mexican economist Andres Marcado.
Still, the pope's opposition to liberation theology - a teaching that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, advocating a more active role in "liberating" the poor from misery and oppression - turned some against him. John Paul II, raised under communist rule in Poland, rejected liberation theology's close association with Marxism. His opposition to it led to charges that he had misunderstood, even betrayed, the church's natural social mission in the region.
But overall, he was adored here. The late pope spoke Spanish and visited the region 18 times. During his visits, he playfully donned sombreros or indigenous headdresses as he embraced his followers in almost every country in the region. He held a landmark mass in Cuba in 1998; scolded Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorial military government in Chile in 1987; and on one of his five visits to Mexico, in 2002, he bestowed sainthood on Juan Diego, an indigenous 16th century Mexican who, after converting to Catholicism, became famous for reportedly seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. He was Latin America's first indigenous saint. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Diego was the first indigenous saint in all of the Americas.]
Today, the 21-strong contingent of Latin American cardinals - of 117 eligible to pick the next pope - is the biggest regional grouping outside Europe's 58. There are 11 cardinals each from Africa and Asia.
Efrain Suazo is a traveling salesman who hawks toothpaste and matches door to door around the hills and poor villages near Santa Lucia. An evangelist, he left the Catholic church several years ago. Nevertheless, Mr. Suazo has found himself in the thick of the debates about the next pope.
No one is much interested in his sponge sale this month, he says. But every time he knocks on a door, he is pulled into a conversation about Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga as the next pope. Suazo is considered something of an expert, he says proudly, because of his frequent trips to "sophisticated" Tegucigalpa, the capital, with its American fast-food chains, modern malls, and newsstands on every corner.
"A lot of people are naive in the countryside," he says, sitting down for some pupusas - cheese and pork patties smothered with cabbage - as the congregation files out of the Church of Santa Lucia across the square.
"They don't read, they don't have electricity, and they don't know that there are all these other European candidates ... or even where Germany is, for example," he says. "Someone said the next pope will be Honduran, word has spread like wildfire - and that's that.... They believe."
With a knowing shrug, he concludes: "Nothing is that simple."
• Ms. Harman is the Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Andrew Downie in São Paulo, Brazil, and Fiona McCann in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.