August 30, 2002

A Latin American Pope? Si …

By Mary Jo McConahay
NCM Online

As frail John Paul returned to Rome from an emotional journey to his native Poland that carried the scent of good -bye, the question of who will succeed him rises more strongly than ever. The answer may come as a surprise. For the first time in history, the next pope could come from Latin America.

The choice is of interest well beyond the globe’s one billion Roman Catholics.

The Church is a powerful force influencing politics and social direction worldwide. In the l980s John Paul, elevated to Rome from his bishop’s chair in Cracow, worked his moral leadership and political acumen toward tearing down the Iron Curtain beginning in Poland, becoming a key force in overcoming communism and ending the Cold War. The next pope confronts a world where poverty, environmental degradation and religious fanaticism are threats to security, and where globalization as a fact of life is affecting millions not with hope, but despair.

Just as the context of John Paul’s election was an East-West struggle, the next pope’s election takes place in a North-South struggle where Third World countries are reeling from deteriorating economies and a sense that the future is not for them.

Nowhere are these conditions more keenly felt than in Latin America and Africa, where the Church has a key presence. More than half the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. The Church is growing faster in numbers in Africa than anywhere else. But bets on a Third World pope – especially a Latin American — are backed by more than geography.

Papacy politics is as hardball and interest driven as any other kind. And the sense from Vatican watchers is that the Third World cardinals want to elect a candidate who will put their poverty and globalization issues forcefully on the agenda. In the College of Cardinals, the body of prelates which elects the pope, Latin Americans hold 26 seats, the largest single block. (Italy holds 24). Any viable candidate must have deep spiritual qualities and charisma. But veteran Vatican observers are watching Latin candidates especially. John Allen, author of Conclave, about the process of the next papal election, told the Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico during the pope’s July visit there that Latin Americans are “the only geographical block which is set to elect one of its own.”

Among the candidates are Mexico’s Norberto Rivera Carrera and Honduras’ Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, both still in their 50s. Rodriguez for one has star quality: he sang with youth at this summer’s huge convocation of young people with the pope in Canada, speaks 6 languages and is a master of Latin and Greek, plays the violin and has a pilot’s license. And he is not shy of controversy. He has attacked the press for coverage of the U.S. clerical sex abuse scandal, saying he believes the Church is targeted for its support of a Palestinian homeland, opposition to abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. Importantly for the poverty eradication agenda, Honduras – which vies with Haiti for the title of poorest country on the continent – took a lead role in the 2000 Jubilee year global campaign to support the pope’s call to cancel or alleviate the international debt of the poorest nations.

Other candidates to watch: Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino of Cuba, Claudio Hummes of Brasil, Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez of the Dominican Republic, all in their sixties, and Dario Castrillon Hoyos, 73, of Colombia. The names of two other Third World cardinals, whose history, experience and agendas would be familiar and arguably agreeable to Latinos, are being heard: Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan of Vietnam, and Nigeria’s Francis Arinze, who handles Vatican relations with Islam.

Whoever is elected, the next pope will certainly aim to continue John Paul’s path of both spiritual and temporal leadership. “In many aspects John Paul II has been the pope of human rights,” Allen told El Periodico. “The next will be the pope of social rights.”

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