Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RELIGION: A Latin American Pope?

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 3 2005 (IPS) - In Latin America and the Caribbean, Catholics are praying, and in many cases weeping, for the health of Pope John Paul II, amidst a flurry of speculation about which bishops from this region have a chance to succeed him if he dies.

At least seven names are being bandied about.

In the College of Cardinals, there are 22 Latin Americans out of a total of 120 electors (who will choose the new pontiff) – the largest regional grouping after Europe’s 59.

Around half of the world’s 1.071 million Roman Catholics live in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“When the Pope’s health flags, in the corridors of power in the Latin American church there are tension, whispering and hidden hopes of succeeding him. We have seen this for several years,” the president of the Latin American Association for the Study of Religion, Elio Masferrer, told IPS.

The Pope, who was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland in 1920 and became John Paul II in 1978, has been in the hospital since Tuesday with an acute respiratory infection.

Although spokespersons for the Vatican say his health is improving, speculation about his possible death has continued to grow.

To different degrees, the Latin American cardinals are disciplined followers of the positions traditionally taken by John Paul, who in his 27 years as Pope marginalised the followers of Liberation Theology, a regional religious current that takes a “preferential option for the poor” and is too close to the Left for the Vatican’s taste.

Nevertheless, among the Latin American cardinals whose names have been mentioned are several who are towards the “progressive” end of the spectrum.

These include Argentine archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a member of the Jesuit order (which has never produced a Pope), archbishop of Sao Paulo Claudio Hummes, a Franciscan from Brazil, and Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, a Salesian from Honduras who presided over the Latin American bishops’ conference.

Although the latter is orthodox in terms of doctrine, he is open to a Catholic Church with a social commitment.

Among the most conservative of the possible Latin American candidates are Colombians Darío Castrillón, Vatican prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, and Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Both are staunchly opposed to Liberation Theology.

Also along those lines are Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru, a former archbishop of Lima and the representative of the ultraconservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei, which enjoys the sympathy of John Paul.

Another name on the list is that of moderate Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City. Rivera is personally esteemed by the Pope.

Reports on the imminent demise of the Pope have periodically recurred over the past 10 years, although that possibility looks closer now due to his advanced age and his numerous chronic health problems, such as Parkinson’s disease.

“His death is approaching,” Mexican Bishop Ramón Godínez said Thursday. In a large part of Latin America, a region that John Paul has visited 18 times, the faithful are flocking to churches to pray for his health.

John Paul travelled to Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time in 1979, with stops in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas. His last trip to the region was in 2002, when he returned to Mexico and also visited Guatemala. During every visit, he was welcomed by millions of people.

“It is only natural that there is so much speculation over his successor, because this Pope has been the most charismatic leader of the Catholic Church in centuries, and what is at stake here is the power of an institution with over one billion followers around the world,” said Masferrer.

When the College of Cardinals meets to select the Pope’s successor, the potential Latin American candidates will need to ally themselves with “major forces” from other regions, he explained.

“Nothing has been specifically stated, there are only hypotheses about who might have a chance of ascending to the highest position in the Church,” he added.

“Right now, more than thinking about his successor, we are praying for John Paul’s health, and we are sure that our brothers the bishops are doing the same,” Mexican priest Javier Zapata told IPS.

“The Pope doesn’t deserve to have people prematurely burying him and focusing on the supposed battle over his succession,” he said.

When John Paul does eventually pass away, the 120 cardinals will gather in the Vatican for the conclave, the meeting at which they will choose the next Pope, in total isolation and cut off completely from contact with the outside world.

Two-thirds of the votes are needed for a final decision. The votes are counted in secret, and once the process has been completed, the ballots are destroyed.

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