New Pope Signals Latino Shift for Catholic Church

For the first time in history, a Latin American cardinal has become pope.

March 13, 2013 — -- For the first time in history, a Latin American cardinal has been selected pope of the Catholic Church.

The decision by the Vatican to break with tradition and choose the first pope from outside Europe in modern times, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, may illustrate the important role Latinos have assumed in the church -- and that the church is recognizing it.

The Catholic laity has been growing outside Europe, while shrinking in the traditional strongholds of Italy, France, Spain, Poland and Germany, the homeland to the prior pope, Benedict XVI.

In fact, according to Pew, Europe's percentage of worldwide Catholics has dropped by more than half over the past century.

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Modern popes all have been from Europe. St. Peter, who Catholics consider the first pope, was, of course, Jewish and from a part of the Roman Empire at the northern tip of modern-day Israel.

Nowadays, however, more than 40 percent of the world's Catholics are located in North or South America, according to Pew. Brazil has the biggest representation, with more than 130 million Catholics, followed by Mexico, with approximately 96 million, and the USA, with 74 million.

Bergoglio, or Pope Francis, as he will now be known, comes from Argentina, which has more than 31 million Catholics -- 90 percent of all Argentinean Christians.

Overall, by region, the largest share of Catholics (39 percent) is located in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Mar Munoz-Visoso, the executive director for cultural diversity in the church with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told ABC News that the selection of a Latin American pope is "an affirmation of the great presence that the Catholic Church has in Latin America."

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"I think about the confidence from the College of Cardinals that a bishop from South America can be a great pope -- a person of hope, humility and leadership for the church," she said. "Really, really an affirmation of the great growth and the great presence of the church all over Latin America."

The leadership numbers within the Catholic Church are starkly different than the make-up of the Catholic masses. There are 115 cardinals from Europe, compared to only 30 from Latin America, perhaps making the chance of those cardinals selecting a Latin American pope much slimmer.

"It's actually a surprise," Munoz-Visoso said. "His name was out there, but he was certainly not among the favorites. It really is a surprise that he got elected ... and [he was] not one most people were expecting."

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Bergoglio reportedly received the second-most votes in the 2005 papal election that selected Benedict, but because of his age he was not considered a front runner for this conclave.

Munoz-Visoso said that, among the Hispanic Catholic community, there is much excitement and surprise.

"Anybody related to Hispanic ministry in the United States, I think, is elated by this -- surprised, and pleased," she said.

In perhaps a momentary premonition, however, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said during a news conference after the announcement of Benedict XVI's resignation that "the church in the developing world, like South America, like Africa, is of great joy and momentum and of numbers. ... Therefore, attentiveness to the developing churches is going to be, I'm sure, on the docket of the cardinals as we meet for the conclave."

Amid their fervent faith, Catholics in the developing world have shown great interest in where the next pope will come from and whether the pope could come from among their ranks.

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That attentiveness to the selection of the next pope, Dinardo said, "says something about the growing importance of that world" to the Catholic Church.

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Even in the modern United States, the church plays a bigger part in the daily lives of Latinos than with the rest of the country. A 2012 Pew Hispanic Center survey looking only at Hispanic Americans found 62 percent of Latinos cited Catholicism as their "religious affiliation," compared to only 23 percent of the general public.

"When it comes to Latinos and their role, their presence has been growing," said Mark Lopez, associate director of Pew Research Hispanic Center.

Today, Lopez said, Hispanics comprise more than a third of the all United States Catholics -- a number projected to rise to 41 percent by 2030, a 2007 Pew survey found.

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The Catholic Association of Latino Leaders said in a statement to ABC News that the selection of a Latin American pope "will further unify Latino Catholics living in the United States."

As the new pope said good night, in perhaps a minor slip, or a nod to his home, Pope Francis said "buenas tardes," in Spanish, before correcting it to "buona notte" -- the Italian version of the phrase.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect findings by Pew that Europe's percentage of worldwide Catholics has dropped by more than half over the past century. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the number of European Catholics has shrunk by more than half.