The region already represents 42% of the world’s 1.2bn-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared to 25% in its European heartland.
After the Pole John Paul, below, and German-born Benedict, the post once reserved for Italians is now open to all. Who gets the nod depends on the profile of the new pope that the cardinals who elect him at the next conclave think will guide the Church best.
Two senior Vatican officials recently dropped surprisingly clear hints about possible successors.
“I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,” said Archbishop Gerhard Müller, who now holds the Pope’s old postas head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“The universal Church teaches that Christianity isn’t centred on Europe,” the German-born archbishop told Düsseldorf’s Rheinische Post newspaper just before Christmas.
Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, told the Tages-Anzeiger daily in Zurich at the same time that the Church’s future was not in Europe: “It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave.”
Asked if he would vote for a non-European over a European candidate if they were equally qualified, he said: “Yes.”
If the next conclave really is Latin America’s turn, the leading candidates seem to be Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the diocese of São Paolo, or the Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri, now heading the Vatican department for Eastern Churches.
Peter Turkson from Ghana, now head of the Vatican’s justice and peace department, is often tipped as Africa’s frontrunner.
If the conclave tilts to the Old Continent, Vatican watchers say Angelo Scola of Milan is in pole position.
Here is a list of the “papabili” (potential popes) most frequently mentioned.
* João Braz de Aviz (Brazil, 65) brought fresh air to the Vatican department for religious congregations when he took over in 2011. He supports the preference for the poor in Latin America’s liberation theology, but not the excesses of its advocates. Possible drawbacks include his low profile.
* Timothy Dolan (USA, 62) became the voice of US Catholicism after being named archbishop of New York in 2009. However, cardinals are wary of a “superpower pope”.
* Marc Ouellet (Canada, 68) is effectively the Vatican’s top staff director as head of the Congregation for Bishops. He once said becoming Pope “would be a nightmare”. The widespread secularism of his native Quebec could work against him.
* Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy, 70) has been Vatican culture minister since 2007 and represents the Church to the worlds of art, science, culture, and even to atheists. This could hurt him if cardinals decide they need an experienced pastor.
* Leonardo Sandri (Argentina, 69) is a “transatlantic” figure born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents. He held the third-highest Vatican post as its chief of staff in 2000-2007. However, he has no pastoral experience.
* Odilo Pedro Scherer (Brazilia, 63) ranks as Latin America’s strongest candidate. Archbishop of São Paolo, largest diocese in the largest Catholic country, he is conservative in his country but would rank as a moderate elsewhere. The rapid growth of Protestant churches in Brazil could count against him.
* Christoph Schönborn (Austria, 67) is a former student of Pope Benedict with a pastoral touch the pontiff lacks. The Vienna archbishop has ranked as papal material since editing the Church catechism in the 1990s. However, some cautious reform stands and strong dissent by some Austrian priests could hurt him.
* Angelo Scola (Italy, 71) is archbishop of Milan, a springboard to the papacy, and is many Italians’ bet to win. His dense oratory could put off cardinals seeking a charismatic communicator.
* Luis Tagle (Philippines, 55) has a charisma often compared to that of the late Pope John Paul. He is also close to Pope Benedict. While he has many fans, he only became a cardinal in 2012 and conclaves are wary of young candidates.
* Peter Turkson (Ghana, 64) is the leading African candidate. Head of the Vatican justice and peace bureau, he is spokesman for the Church’s social conscience and backs world financial reform. He showed a video criticising Muslims at a recent Vatican synod, raising doubts about how he sees Islam.