Pope Benedict’s resignation on Monday took the world by surprise, and brought hope to Latin America—home of 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics—that the next leader of the Catholic Church could be the first to come from outside of Europe.
According to two senior Vatican officials, Latin America’s time has come. Archbishop Gerhard Muellet told Düsseldorf’s Rheinische Post newspaper that ”Christianity isn't centered on Europe,” and on a similar statement, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch stated that the Church's future is no longer in Europe. For others, however, the higher number of European Cardinals may shift the odds against a Latin American Pope.
All Cardinals less than 80 years old are candidates and can vote to choose the new Pope at a conclave, a closed-door election process that takes place in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The leading Latin American candidates in the next conclave are Odilo Scherer, 63, archbishop of Sao Paolo, and the Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri, 69, who announced to the world the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2005.
Despite Latin America’s long Catholic tradition, a pontiff’s first visit to the region didn’t take place until 1968 when Pope Paul VI visited Bogota, Colombia. The most recent visit was in 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico and made a historic appearance in Cuba, at a time when, according to Cuba Study Group’s Tomas Bilbao, the country “has openly recognized the failure of its current economic model, has encouraged its citizens to openly debate the need for change, and has even recognized the legitimate role of Cubans living abroad in Cuba’s future.”
Pope Benedict XVI, 85, will step down for health reasons on February 28, becoming the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to give up his post. The new pontiff’s first visit to the region could take place in July 2013 during World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil.