For the first time in history, there's a realistic chance that the new Pope could be Brazilian. The discussion reflects a longing for awakening and renewal in the largest Catholic country in the world.
The new pope's first international journey is already set for Rio de Janeiro, where around two million believers are expected to gather from July 23 to 28. So, is God Brazilian, as Carlos Diegues' movie suggested a decade ago? At the Brazilian bishops' conference as well as within the Brazilian government, the yearning for a "Latino" pope is growing.
Raymundo Damasceno Assis, head of the Brazilian bishops' conference, told the Brazilian daily "O Globo" that there's no great desire for the church to be led by a European. "How do we know God doesn't want to point to a leader from another continent?" Assis was quoted as saying.
A similar sentiment came from the capital city Brasilia, where Gilberto Carvalho - head of the cabinet - was quoted in the Brazilian press expressing his desire for a Brazilian pope. Carvalho, who is himself a devout Catholic, told Reuters, "It would be a great honor for any country to have a pope of its nationality."
Pope from the south?
Humility is not currently the dominant tone in the up-and-coming country of Brazil. Why shouldn't the nation that will host World Youth Day, the next soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games also boast the selection of a Brazilian pope?
Pirmin Spiegel, head of the Catholic charity Misereor, said he always perceived the Latin American, and especially the Brazilian church, as "very self-confident." Spiegel, who lived for Brazil for 15 years as a missionary, also desires a non-European pope. "It would surely be an important sign if the next pope came from the [global] south," he said. Many partners of the project also reportedly want a Latin American pope who would understand the realities of the continent.
From a purely statistical perspective, there's a low chance that a Brazilian pope will emerge from the conclave. Of the 117 eligible cardinals, only five originate from Brazil - although around 125 million Catholics live in the country.
The United States, with 70 million Catholics - including many who immigrated from Latin American countries - has 11 candidates. Meanwhile the majority of cardinals - 61 - are from Europe.
However, there is one Brazilian among the five in the conclave who is considered a favorite: Odilo Pedro Scherer. Pope John Paul declared the 65-year-old with German roots an auxiliary bishop in Sao Paulo in 2001. Six years later, Pope Benedict named Scherer archbishop of the Brazilian city.
In his native Brazil, Scherer is seen as a conservative who has fought against declining traditional values, and against homosexual union, while in Rome, he enjoys the reputation of being moderate and open.
Distance from subjects
Behind the longing for a Brazilian pope is a perceived distance of many Brazilian Catholics to Benedict. João de Deus de Carvalho Leal, a priest who shared details about his life in northeast Brazil at the invitation of the German aid organization Adveniat, described the Roman Curia as living in a completely different world.
"We are bound together by belief, but we don't have a special relationship to Benedict," Carvalho Leal said. For the priest from the small town of Oeiras in the northeast Brazilian state of Piaui, evangelism and the fight against poverty go hand in hand.
Carvalho Leal, who linked care of souls with social work, cautioned against Catholicism as being simply a conglomeration of principles and dogma. "A repetition of prohibitions, that's not what we expect from the church," he added.
The alienation of many Brazilians from the Catholic church is underscored by the numbers: According to the Brazilian statistical agency IBGE, the proportion of Catholics in Brazil decreased from 74 percent to 64 percent in the decade from 2000 to 2010. Evangelical churches, in the same time period, increased their membership from 15 to 22 percent of the Brazilian population.
A calling - for reform
Elizete Dia da Silva, a missionary nun, said it was largely the spirituality of evangelical movements that draws people in. "The lack of a calling is apparent in all orders," she said, adding that "there are less people everywhere." She hopes that the next pope would be "a true pastor" who would represent the interests of the poor.
Sisters within Catholic orders, such as Dia da Silva, are often considered "midwives of the church." Priests, however, are in short supply. Spiegel said that although the Eucharist on Sundays is a focal point for Catholicism, the majority of Brazilian parishes don't offer the ceremony.
Like many believers in Latin America, Spiegel also promotes granting more rights to women in the Catholic church, including "discovering new paths ... to priesthood."
The desire for reform is strong in Latin America as well as in Europe. Many parishes call for a revival of a more liberal theology, which was pushed aside by the last two popes. Spiegel is convinced that "as long as people live in degradation and marginalization, liberal theology will be relevant, even if it goes by another name."
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