What a Latin American pope means for Catholics

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2013 - 12:12 PM
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Until Tuesday, Catholics worldwide wondered if a non-European pope would ever be elected. Now they’re wondering if a European pope is ever likely again.

For a church with headquarters in Rome, where early apostles of Jesus were martyred for spreading the Gospel, the election of the first South American pope marks a pivotal shift in the Catholic mindset. It also shines a light on a part of the world where the faith is vibrant, youthful and thriving.

Pope Francis came to Rome for the conclave unaware that he would never to return home to pack his belongings. He’ll spend his first weeks in office living at a temporary residence at the Vatican while the papal apartment is being renovated.

During Pope Benedict XVI’s eight year tenure, the Vatican often seemed a dated European hierarchy plagued by bank scandals, document leaks and clergy misconduct. That’s not the image any church wants, especially one with 1.2 billion members, or half of the world’s Christians.

Benedict famously bristled at Latin American worship infused with cultural customs. In Pope Francis, Hispanic Catholics have a leader who speaks their language and reflects their spirituality.

Latin America is more than 70 percent Catholic and, along with the Caribbean, accounts for nearly 40 percent of the worldwide Catholic population. A century ago, nearly 65 percent of Catholics lived in Europe.

A South American pope may help slow Catholic defecting to Pentecostal churches, whose energetic worship and emphasis on personal transformation has great appeal. That’s especially true in Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, where Francis will address a worldwide youth rally in July.

U.S. Hispanic Catholics tend to be more religious than other Catholics, with a strong devotion to Jesus’ mother, but more socially conservative on abortion. They helped to catapult Barack Obama to victory in the 2012 presidential election, demonstrating that they do not follow lockstep with their bishops on issues such as contraception.

Francis also breaks ground as the first pope from a religious order since the 19th century. They’re communities of men or women who live a common life based on the principals of their founder. Francis belongs to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), which is known for its intellectuals, disciplined spiritual practices and social justice ministries.

In Minneapolis, the Jesuit-run Cristo Rey high school in the Phillips neighborhood is 70 percent Hispanic. In Lake Elmo, a Jesuit retreat out, Demontreville, is grounded in the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. In St. Paul, Jesuits run St. Thomas Moore Church on Summit Avenue.

Sadly, track record for religious orders on clergy sexual abuse matters is even worse than the abysmal records of bishops. Electing a Jesuit could be a giant step backward at precisely the wrong moment in history.

Because of his age, I didn’t give the 76-year-old Argentine with one lung much of a chance at becoming pope given that Benedict broke a nearly 600-year tradition by retiring. Surely the College of Cardinals wouldn’t risk the possibility of having two papal retirees down the line.

But the near winner of the 2005 conclave came out on top in 2013. Choosing an older pope made choosing a non-European less risky. Francis won’t have a long papacy, so if transition doesn’t work well there’s little harm done.

For now the momentum is with him, as Catholics appear energized by the focus on the global South and the no fuss manner of a leader who preferred taking a bus or subway to church rather than a car.

That raises the question: Will Francis embrace the popemobile?

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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