Secular Voices Sound on Papal Succession

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina--Mexican pilgrims, in Rome to pay their respects to Pope John Paul II, greeted Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera with chants of "Mexico! Mexico!", "Norberto for pope!" and "Yes, it can be done!" Rivera, considered a candidate for the papacy, later seemed hard-pressed to reclaim an atmosphere of sanctity for the papal succession.

"This is not a soccer game," Rivera told the Mexico City daily El Universal. "This does not get decided according to popularity or the media -- it's God who decides."

But Latin Americans, especially politicians eager to regain for the region a measure of priority on the global agenda, clearly would not mind if God decided in their favor. Nominally secular politicians have breached the strict decorum usually observed and have been openly promoting a Latin American papacy in the region's media.

Latin America currently has precious little else with which to gain the rest of the world's attention. Since Sept. 11, 2001, other world leaders, absorbed with terrorism and the great geopolitical questions of the Middle East and East Asia, have largely ignored the region.

With the papal succession, Latin America is again a protagonist. At the Vatican, Latin America's hundreds of millions of Catholics and its 20 papal electors mean it has considerable weight in shaping the future of one of the world's largest denominations and arguably the most influential single institution in world history.

In the Rio de Janeiro's O Globo daily newspaper, former diplomat Rubens Barbosa wrote in an April 6 op-ed that both the U.S. elections and the papal succession are the world's only truly "global elections, because of their importance and repercussion on the course of worldwide events." Barbosa added that many believe the democratic choice is for a pope from the developing world, because it accounts for 65 percent of the world's Catholics.

Brazil's leftist government has been positioning itself as a leader of a developing world bloc at forums like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, where it is lobbying aggressively for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. Brazil also happens to be the world's leading Catholic nation, with some 130 million believers. Viewed through a purely political lens, the papal succession presents an unprecedented opportunity for Brazilian sensibilities (particularly the preoccupation with economic inequality) to command worldwide attention.

It is no surprise, then, that Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, instead of tiptoeing, bluntly said he would like to see a Latin American pope, and preferably a Brazilian one. Lula said a pope from the region "would be closer to us, he would understand our problems better."

This was interpreted as an endorsement of São Paulo Archbishop Cláudio Hummes, once nicknamed the "Worker's Bishop" for his support of striking workers (among them President Lula, a former union leader) during the 1970 dictatorship. Many consider Hummes the Latin American with the greatest chances of succeeding John Paul II.

Lula's declarations ended in a flap. Rio de Janeiro's Archbishop, Cardinal Eusébio Oscar Scheid, responded that Lula's stance "was chaotic, not catholic" and that the president should not have sought to influence a decision "illuminated by the Holy Spirit." Scheid -- one of the papal electors -- also accused President Lula of trying to rack up political dividends by attending the pope's funeral with a delegation that included two ex-presidents, legislators and Brazilian Muslim and protestant leaders.

Lula's outspokenness and generosity with travel arrangements might seem unlikely considering that his decidedly secular Worker's Party diverges from the Vatican line on issues including abortion, condoms and homosexuality. Yet the election to the papacy of Cardinal Hummes, who has said "confronting poverty" is among the Church's most pressing issues, would dovetail with Lula's efforts to push his social justice agenda, including his "Zero Hunger" program, globally.

Other regional politicians also seemed unable to dodge the question of a Latin American papacy without casting a verbal ballot in favor, however obliquely. On CNN en Español, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos could not hold back an enraptured smile when anchorwoman Patricia Janiot asked him in Rome about the possibility of a Colombian being chosen pope. "Obviously for a country like ours that would be something incredible," he said.

Santos's words are loaded with connotations obvious to Latin Americans. Santos means that for a poor, violence-ridden and (despite U.S. military aid) neglected country like Colombia, a Colombian pope would bring a host of spiritual and secular dividends. Undoubtedly a Colombian papacy (Medellín-born Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos is considered a candidate) would boost Colombia's peace process, in which bishops have brokered negotiations with armed groups.

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa also said he believed the next pope could be Latin American. Puerto Rican governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá was quoted in San Juan daily Primera Hora saying a Latin American pope would be mean "extraordinary recognition for our people ... a signal of the importance that Latin America, the Hispanic world, will have in the future of the Church, in the future of many developments in the modern world."

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