In Catholic stronghold, the case for a Latin pope

The cardinals' conclave begins Monday to select the next head of the Roman Catholic Church.

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.

"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."

'Strengthening our faith'

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."

Bracing for disappointment

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.

"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."

"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."

John Paul's many visits

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.

'Nothing is that simple'

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.

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