Latin American Catholics Represent Growing Segment Of Church As Pope Francis Is Picked To Lead

As the first Latin American pope after more than 1,000 years of popes from Europe, Pope Francis' election on Wednesday means the leader of the world's largest church is now hails from its biggest region of membership. Francis' papacy is expected to be a tremendous boon to Latino Catholics in South America and the Caribbean, who make up 39 percent of the global Catholic population.

Catholics are the biggest religious group in most parts of Latin America. In Argentina, Francis' homeland, nearly 77 percent (31 million) of the population is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The nation has the world's 11th largest Catholic population.

As the faith's stronghold has faded in the U.S. with the growth of secularism and the decline of regular church attendance, so too has its growth slowed in places such as Brazil and Mexico. The nations have the world's biggest Catholic populations, with 133 million in Brazil and 96 million in Mexico, yet evangelical and Pentecostal movements have increasingly become popular in the countries as well as in neighboring nations. In Argentina, where the Roman Catholic Church is the only officially recognized religion, only 20 percent of Catholics regularly practice the faith and the church has recently clashed with the state, such as over the nation legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010.

Still, the Americas have the bulk of the world's Catholics. The U.S., with the third-biggest population of Catholics, has sustained its 74 million church members largely through the growing Latino population. Meanwhile, the church has become less concentrated in Europe, which held only 24 percent of Catholics in 2010, compared to 65 percent of Catholics a century earlier, according to Pew. The number of Catholics has increased in Europe over the last century but not nearly as fast as it's increased outside the continent.

"Latino Catholics have a great affection for the pope and I have to imagine that many are going to have a greater affection this time around," said Timothy Matovina, a theology professor who specializes in Latino Catholicism at Notre Dame University. "This will be an exciting time for many Latin Americans. Just to even hear the a native speaker who is pope speak in Spanish for the first time, it'll be emotional. I imagine he will visit the region.

"But at the same time, is it going to have a major impact on advances of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism? It may have some, but those trends are bigger than just one man, even the pope," said Matovina.

For a diverse global faith that has a foothold in nearly every nation and Vatican diplomats in 180 countries, the church has long been viewed as strictly European -- specifically Italian -- in large part because of the dominance of Italians and other Europeans in Vatican leadership. Despite the size of the church in Latin America, only 19 of the 115 cardinals who voted in the papal conclave come from the region. Experts said Francis, a Jesuit priest who was formerly Archbishop of Buenos Aires, may help improve the church's European image.

At the same time, the new pope's familiarity with Europe -- he was born to Italian immigrants, has worked extensively in high-level Vatican offices and fluently speaks Italian and German in addition to Spanish -- means the papal office and Vatican won't be entirely unfamiliar territory.

Miguel Diaz, a Cuban-American who was first Latino U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said the cardinals' pick of Francis is a proud moment for Latinos.

"This is significant, as almost half of the church worldwide is Latin American and almost half of the church in the U.S. is Latino. There's a saying in Spanish that, 'Who we walk with in life matters.' This man has walked with the poor, lived among immigrants, and he has a personal story of migration. This will undoubtedly shape the way he serves," said Diaz, who left the ambassador post in November and is currently a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton.

In Miami, home to one of the largest U.S. Latino populations and one of the largest communities of Argentines, Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a statement that the the election of Latin American pope was "great day of rejoicing here in the New World, for Pope Francis is an American."

Wenski continued: "As Blessed John Paul II repeatedly told us: America is one, not North and South. And Latin America, with the world’s largest number of Catholics, is, as Pope Benedict reminded us, a continent of hope."

New Pope Elected