Our turn next for pope, say Latin Americans
Latin America senses an opportunity to break Europe's grip on the papacy as Pope Benedict's decision to step down stirs hopes the world's biggest Roman Catholic bloc may finally get to lead the Church.
Home to 42 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Latin America far outweighs Europe's 25 percent, although the Church has for years been losing ground to Protestant and evangelical rivals across the region.
Ever since Rome broke with a longstanding tradition in 1978 by appointing a non-Italian pope, John Paul II, the faithful of Latin America have harbored hopes that one of their own would soon take charge of the largest flock in Christendom.
"A Latin American pope would be good politics by the Church.
There are many Catholics here, but they're losing their share in the market," said Acacia Ramirez, a 36-year-old actuary, as she headed to work in Mexico City.
As recently as 1970, about 96 percent of Mexicans pledged allegiance to the pope in Rome. However, over the past four decades, millions have turned to evangelical Protestantism and other churches - or abandoned religion completely.
Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of Catholics in Mexico fell from 88 percent to less than 83 percent. That was sharpest drop since records began. The decline in Brazil, which is home to the world's biggest Catholic population, has been even more precipitous.
A 2010 census showed that just over 120 million Brazilians call themselves Catholics - about 65 percent of the population, compared with over 90 percent of Brazilians in 1970.
Some top Latin American clerics mused openly about change.
"It could be time for a black pope, or a yellow one, or a red one, or a Latin American. Or it could be time for an Asian pope, or one from another continent," Guatemala's Archbishop Oscar Julio Vian Morales said after Benedict's announcement.
Benedict never captured the imagination of Latin American churchgoers in the same way as Polish-born John Paul, who visited the region several times and whose portrait still adorns the walls of homes and stores nearly eight years after his death.