Pope Benedict XVI Resigns: Church Growing in Third World, But European Cardinals Control Power

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Urbi et Orbi message and blessing from the central balcony of St. Peters Basilica at the end of the Easter Mass, April, 2012, in Vatican City, Vatican.PlayLOsservatore Romano Vatican Pool/Getty Images
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As Catholics across the globe begin Lent, many look toward Rome and wonder if the Vatican will break with tradition and choose the first pope from outside Europe in modern times.

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

In fact, according to Pew, the number of European Catholics has shrunk by more than half over the past century.

"The church in the developing world, like South America, like Africa, is of great joy and momentum and of numbers," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. "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."'

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.

PHOTOS: Pope Benedict Resigns

DiNardo told reporters this week that it is unlikely the next pope will come from the United States. But, he said, the Vatican has to recognize the New World growth.

"It is a democratic process to have representatives from all the churches," DiNardo said. "Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to enlarge the College of Cardinals to include cardinals from everywhere all over the world."

Nevertheless, as cardinals gather to vote on the next pope, the leadership numbers are starkly different than the make-up of the Catholic masses. There are 115 cardinals from Europe, compared to only 30 from Latin America.

"In my dealings with people in the developing world ... they have a much more joyous practice and love of the Catholic faith than you might see in some of the developed world," said DiNardo, one of the 118 cardinals under the age of 80 allowed to vote for the next pope. "It is fascinating."

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.

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

Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at University of Norte Dame, said that in Hispanic culture the pope is seen more as a "spiritual figure" or a "great carino."

The Latin American "church tends to be a vibrant living body of faith to address the everyday needs of their communities," Matovia said.

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.

In recent years, DiNardo said, the church has seen a shift toward refocusing on this important segment of Catholics.

In 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI selected DiNardo as the first cardinal from Texas, many saw it as a symbol that the church was beginning to recognize that the "center of gravity" of American Catholicism has shifted south.

"The growth of the Catholic population in the southern part of the United States in recent years is something extraordinary," DiNardo told the Houston Chronicle at the time. "I believe one of the reasons is the Holy See's genuine confidence in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as a growing, dynamic area."

In 2010 Archbishop Jose Horacio Gomez was sent from San Antonio, Texas, to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles , the largest in the United States, by Pope Benedict XVI -- making Gomez the highest-ranking Hispanic bishop in the United States and on track to be this country's first Hispanic cardinal.

But as the cardinals gather to vote on the next pope, the question remains whether the growth in the southern United States, and especially in Latin America, can overcome the European dominance of the Vatican's decision makers in the College of Cardinals.