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Pope’s surprise resignation has Latin America abuzz

News that a tired and ailing Pope Benedict XVI had decided to put aside the burdens of the papacy and resign resounded throughout Latin America.

Monday’s news came less than a year after Benedict visited Mexico and Cuba and as he was gearing up for a July visit to Brazil, nominally the most Catholic country in the world.

The resignation also comes at a time when talk of a new pope from the developing world, where the majority of the world’s Catholics live, has gained momentum.

“The church has moved to the Southern Hemisphere,’’ said Andy Gomez, who sits on the Archdiocese of Miami’s synod, which is currently reviewing the church’s mission.

In terms of Benedict’s successor, “I think this will come down to the Northern Hemisphere vs. the Southern Hemisphere,’’ said Gomez, who is also a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “The world has changed and what is important is being able to relate to the world’s Catholics.

“I would personally hope for a more progressive pope. I don’t see very many progressive Italian candidates but there are progressives in Latin America and Africa,’’ said Gomez, who took part in the Archdiocese of Miami’s pilgrimage to Cuba for Benedict’s visit.

Of the 118 cardinals eligible to be the next pope, 14 are from Latin America, including three from Brazil, three from Mexico and two from Argentina.

Some are on the papal shortlist, but it may be premature to think of a New World pope, said Father Hermann Rodriguez, the dean of theology at Bogotá’s Jesuit Javeriana University.

“I just don’t think it’s likely that we’ll have a Latin American or even an American pope,” he said. “The church still has its center of power in Europe, even though there are candidates from all parts of the world.”

However, 42 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America.

Rodriguez predicted the church’s top job would go to one of the 28 Italian cardinals who are in the running. But in breaking with that tradition, the last two popes haven’t been Italian. Benedict is German, and John Paul II was from Poland.

Rodriguez praised Benedict’s decision to step down — an event that hasn’t happened since 1415 with the retirement of Gregory XII — as a way to keep the church dynamic. In announcing he would be leaving Feb. 28, Benedict said that “both strength of mind and body are necessary’’ for a pope in today’s world of rapid changes.

“I think he showed admirable wisdom,” Rodriguez said. “I take my hat off to his sensitivity and intelligence.”

One of the pope’s milestones during his eight-year tenure was his visit to Cuba last March. His visit was eagerly anticipated, but was less politically transformative than some had hoped.

Still, hundreds of thousands of Cubans turned out to greet Benedict whose visit coincided with the 400th anniversary year of the discovery of a small wooden statute of Our Lady of Charity bobbing in the Bay of Nipe. The virgin became Cuba’s patron saint in 1916 and the original statue is displayed in a shrine at El Cobre.

“The resignation of Benedict XVI is a great surprise, and at the same time an invaluable lesson in humility,’’ Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, said Monday.

“The pope once again has broken with old models and isn’t afraid to announce to the world that he is too weak and tired to continue governing the Catholic Church,’’ said Ortega, who accompanied the pope during his Cuban visit.

Colombia’s Catholic Church had been awaiting the pope’s appearance Monday, because Benedict was scheduled to set a canonization date for this country’s first saint, Mother Laura Monotoa Upegui, who died in 1949. But minutes after setting the date, the pope stunned the world with news of his resignation.

The news also had particular resonance in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez’s battle with cancer has kept him sidelined for months.

“The pope has shown his human side by recognizing his lack of physical power,” the president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Council Diego Padrón told El Nacional newspaper. “What a beautiful example for the world.”

Benedict had been scheduled to visit Brazil for the church’s World Youth Day festival in Rio de Janeiro, July 23-28. But his older brother, Georg Ratzinger, told dpa, the German news agency, that the pope had been advised by his doctor not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips.

With an estimated 125 million Catholics, Brazil is the largest Catholic country, and there are two Brazilian cardinals who have been mentioned as possible successors: Joao Bráz de Aviz, who heads the Vatican Department for religious congregations, and Odilo Pedro Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo.

Among other Latin Americans who have been mentioned as possible successors are:

The leading African candidate is Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. He heads the Vatican’s justice and peace bureau.

Candidates from Europe and North America also are considered possible successors when the conclave of cardinals meets to elect the next pope.

But Bishop Jose Daniel Falla Robles, the secretary general of the Colombian Episcopal Council, said the election of popes has generated “many surprises in the past,” because the process involves more than geopolitics and the desires of the cardinals.

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that this process is guided by God,” he said.

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