A Brazilian, an Argentine, a Honduran: several
Latin American cardinals have been mentioned as likely candidates to
succeed Pope Benedict XVI.
Indeed, many believe that this is the right time for the region - home to the world's greatest population of Roman Catholics - to have one of its own at the top of the Church hierarchy.
Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, archbishop emeritus of Brasilia, voiced the beliefs of many in the Roman Catholic Church last month, noting the "very strong sense of religiousness" in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
"On the other hand, Europe is living through a moment in which the historic monuments are still standing, but there is no vocation. There is a real decrease in the number of faithful, something really worrying," he told the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo in an interview.
Latin America is home to about 40 per cent of the world's 1.19 billion Catholics. And, with its 19 representatives at the conclave that starts Tuesday, it is the second region in terms of presence, after Europe, with its overwhelming 61 electors.
The charismatic pope John Paul II considered the region among his favourites. Benedict XVI visited Brazil in 2007 and Mexico and Cuba last year. But, even in Latin America, the number of faithful is dwindling, particularly as evangelical churches advance.
Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, another Brazilian being billed as a top candidate for the throne of Saint Peter, has said location is not the issue.
"The pope's geographic origin is not an essential issue. The issue is to know whether he is fit to take the position," Scherer said.
Is this Latin America's time? Views differ among experts.
"I don't see either an African or an Asian or a Latin American (as pope), even if the Catholic Church in Latin America is the majority sector in terms of numbers," Gonzalo Balderas Vega, an academic at the Religious Studies Department at the Jesuit Ibero-American University in Mexico City, told dpa.
"There are few bishops who are major episcopal figures in this 21st century, there is a very poor episcopate in Latin America," he argued.
Scherer and Braz are on the list of the region's potential papal candidates, as are Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Honduras' Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga.
But, while Latin America's significance in terms of numbers is beyond doubt, it arguably lacks the substance to back up such figures.
"It is not particularly important for Catholicism's development at the intellectual level or at the theological level, as it may have been in the past with Liberation Theology," Mexican sociologist of religions Roberto Blancarte told dpa in an interview.
"Latin America stopped being important long ago," said Blancarte, an academic at the College of Mexico and the author of The Pope's Successor and the History of the Catholic Church in Mexico, among other works on religion.
Scherer, 63, is arguably too young to be pope, but could be helped by the country's large Roman Catholic population. He also leads the largest diocese in that country, Sao Paulo. Also, the fact that Benedict XVI said he was resigning because of infirmity arguably makes it less of a problem for a pontiff to reach the position too early.
Scherer, who is of German descent, also has the pastoral experience that many have highlighted as an asset necessary in the new pope.
Sandri lacks such pastoral experience, but is a real expert when it comes to the Curia in Rome, another potentially crucial asset as the new pontiff tackles the apparent internal divisions within the Vatican and its struggle with corruption and paedophilia. And, at 69, he is considered to be the "right" age for a new pope.
Experts have noted that a Latin American pope might bring the Church closer to the majority of practicing Roman Catholics, but not necessarily closer to the contemporary world at large.
"From Latin America, people think that we need to have a Latin American pope and they don't realize that a Latin American pope would be much more conservative than a European one," said Blancarte.
"Maradiaga supported the coup in Honduras. Mexican cardinals are conservative. Brazilians are probably the ones with the best image," he said. "Europeans are more used to living in a secularized country. They have different relations with modernity."
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