February 15, 2013

Thirty-nine percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics are Latino and 50 percent of Catholics in the United States under 40 are Latino. The demographic represents a muscular and growing part of the church.

That considered, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a Catholic who graduated from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic High School and Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C., said the church should consider a Latino pope as a successor for Pope Benedict XVI, who announced Monday he will resign effective Feb. 28, setting up a papal conclave for March.

"I think it would be a great move in the right direction," Harkin said Thursday afternoon of the prospects of a Latino pope.

Harkin's remarks came during a conference call with the Daily Times Herald and other media.

"I think it would send a strong signal to the rest of the world," Harkin said. "I think it would give a new face to the church to do something like that."

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras is widely reported to be in the running in the papal-selection process as are other Hispanics.

Timothy Matovina, executive director of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies, told NBC Latino that the Honduran cardinal made a favorable impression when he spoke to a national meeting of Latino youth at the university.

"They brought him in, and he was electrifying," Matovina said in the NBC Latino interview. "Here was a cardinal from Latin America - and he's one of them. He said in Honduras they miss the people who have left to the U.S. 'We miss you everyday. We minister for the families who weep for you, we dry their tears,' he said. He was speaking from within the Latino experience. It's very powerful stuff."

Harkin said the church doesn't have to limit itself to the top of its hierarchy in selecting a leader.

"You know, you don't have to be a cardinal to be a pope," Harkin said. "You don't even have to a be a bishop to be a pope. They can reach down and pick a priest to be a pope. I've met a lot of good priests out there."

Harkin, 73, said the pope he most admires during his own lifetime is Pope John XXIII, who held the position from 1958 to 1963.

"He opened up the doors and really moved the church forward," Harkin said. "Since that time, the windows seem to be getting closed again. So I think we need to again revive the spirit of Pope John XXIII, open up the church more, and don't be afraid of a proliferation of different views and ideas. I never did buy the idea that it was going to get stronger by becoming more narrow and demanding more orthodoxy."