Pope Benedict’s resignation lauded as ‘a great lesson’ in Latin America


Pope Benedict XVI waves during a March 2012 visit to Cuba. (Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)

Across Latin America, the pope’s announcement that he will step down at the end of the month is drawing official comment as well as some speculation that the next pope could come from the region. Forty percent of all Catholics are in Latin America, and clergymen from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are considered contenders for a church that is shrinking in Europe but growing in many developing countries.

The president of the Episcopal Conference of Bishops in Venezuela said the move served “as a good example” for having shown that it is best to resign in the face of hobbling incapacity. In public comments, Archbishop Diego Padron also said the pope had the interest of the church and its renovation in mind. “The pope doesn’t usually give out news in pieces,” Padron said.

It was not lost on Venezuelans that Padron’s message could have been as easily directed at President Hugo Chavez as to Venezuela’s Catholics. That’s because the ailing Chavez hasn’t been heard or seen by Venezuelans since undergoing a complicated cancer surgery in Cuba two months ago. Since then, the government has only released news on Chavez’s condition in dribs and drabs, delivering few hard facts about the president’s prognosis. That remains a state secret.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has been embroiled in an institutional crisis as Chavez’s aides try to deal with a range of crises, from a prison riot that left dozens dead to shortages of toilet paper and milk to sky-high inflation and rampant crime. Chavez’s lieutenants claim Chavez remains in charge, but many Venezuelans do not believe them.

The church has long been critical of Chavez’s autocratic rule. And the president has not had kind words for the church, calling the hierarchy in Venezuela “devil's investments.”

“This is a luminous moment, a great lesson,” Padron said, speaking of the pope’s announcement. “The pope has been very human, has recognized that he no longer has strength and, with humility, has ended his services. He’s a good example.”

Benedict's visit to Mexico in March 2012 is remembered for bringing consolation to a country torn by savage drug violence. Some of the country's criminal gangs even took a break from their murderous ways during his stay. Benedict held a large outdoor mass near the central Mexican city of Leon during the visit, donning a large black sombrero to the delight of the crowds.

"Pope Benedict XVI has always been a friend of Mexico and a messenger for peace and reconciliation," Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto posted to his official Twitter account, offering the "solidarity and respect of the Mexican government."

Benedict's March 2012 trip also included a stop in Cuba, marking the first papal visit to the communist-run island since Pope John Paul II's groundbreaking 1998 voyage. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the country's highest-ranking church official, said Benedict's decision to step down was "a big surprise," but called it "an invaluable lesson in humility."

"The Pope has broken once more with convention, and isn't afraid to tell the world he's too weak and tired to go on with the huge responsibility of governing the Catholic Church," Ortega said in a statement.

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Max Fisher · February 11, 2013