(NEW YORK) -- As Catholics across the globe begin the holy season of 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.
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.
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