The continent has half a billion believers – but only 21 of the 117 cardinals who will elect the next pontiff
Almost as soon as Benedict XVI announced his resignation, Latin America was abuzz with speculation that the Catholic church would finally choose a pope from the continent with the most believers.
From the mayor of Mexico City to bishops and newspaper commentators in almost every country in the region, the prospects for a first Hispanic pontiff have been raised, weighed or boosted in newspapers, social networks and sermons.
Latin America is home to 41% of the world's 1.2 billion registered Catholics, but of the 117 cardinals who will decide the next pope, only 21 are from Latin America; almost half are from Europe.
For much of the past 50 years, swaths of Latin America have embraced a more socially active vision of the church's role in alleviating poverty and resisting dictatorships. "Liberation Theology" has proved highly controversial in the Vatican, where conservatives have been wary of the movement's overt Marxist sympathies. Before succeeding John Paul II, Benedict XVI proved his mettle by taking on the Liberation Theologians, whom he described as a "fundamental threat to the faith of the church".
None of the Latin American candidates is likely to introduce radical changes, though they could offer a change of tone and a continental shift in perspectives.
The best known is probably Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who rose to public attention when he served as the voice of John Paul while the last pope was unable to speak due to Parkinson's disease. He also announced the pontiff's death. Now 69, Sandri, who speaks five languages, has held several senior positions in the Vatican, including his current role as head of the congregation of Oriental churches, which makes him responsible for Catholics in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Holy Land. But some have noted that Sandri's star has been waning in recent years; his current role is less influential than the positions he occupied under John Paul.
If demographics were a major factor, then the leading Latin American candidate would probably be Odilo Pedro Scherer, the 63-year-old archbishop of Sao Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil and the continent.
The possibility of a first Hispanic pope has been widely picked up in the Brazilian media. The influential Veja magazine speculated that Scherer might be in the frame. There are five Brazilians among the 119 cardinals who are eligible to vote.
Brazil is the world's biggest Catholic nation with an estimated 150 million believers, 75% of the population. But this is a decline on the 90% recorded in the past – a result of secularism and a strong challenge by evangelical methodist groups and Islam but the country's importance to the church was evident in Benedict XVI's decision to make Sao Paulo the destination in 2007 of his first of his two trips to Latin America.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013