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In Catholic stronghold, the case for a Latin pope

The cardinals' conclave begins Monday to select the next head of the Roman Catholic Church.

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The cardinals don't gather in the Sistine Chapel to select a successor to Pope John Paul II until Monday, but Ana Virginia Echeverria says she doesn't need to wait for a puff of white smoke to know what's in store.

"It's Latin America's time," says Ms. Echeverria, perched in the front pew of Iglesia Santa Lucia, an 18-century church here in Honduras. A member of the church band, she tunes her guitar, strumming an F-sharp chord, and adds, "I feel it in my knee."

For many Latin American Catholics, it is indeed their time. As many as 450 million of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in Latin America, leading many here to say that the next pope should - and will - be one of them. But their preference is about more than sheer numbers. While the top issues in the US and European Catholic communities are things like homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and the sex-abuse scandal, Latin Catholics are focused on poverty, corruption, gangs, and drugs - not to mention the competition for believers with successful evangelical churches. In Africa, disease, war, famine, and the spread of Islam can be added to that list of concerns.

There is a growing clamor for a different kind of pope, says the Rev. Jose Jesus Mora, spokesman for the diocese in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. The next pontiff, he says, should not only understand the issues that affect most Catholics today, but come from among them.

"Some of the European cardinals visit and empathize," says Father Mora. "But more often they fly in and out for a ceremony, if they come at all. They are not truly familiar with us and our villages of the faithful."

"The future of the Catholic Church is in the southern hemisphere," agrees David Carrasco, professor of Latin American studies at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "And if the new pope does not come from that future, then the church will continue to lose ground to movements and churches that speak to the long, unrelenting agony of many types of colonialism."

'Strengthening our faith'

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