Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning resignation could set the stage for the Vatican’s first Latin American Pope in history.

Benedict, 85, announced on Monday he will resign on Feb. 28 because of his declining health. The news sent shock waves in the Catholic Church and ignited intense speculation as to who will replace him.

The College of Cardinals will hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, and while there are no obvious front-runners for the position, Hispanic Catholics in the United States are praying for a Latin American leader that would sympathize with Latino culture and provide a voice which can cement Hispanic influence worldwide.

"The possibilities of an African or Latin American pope are certainly there," said Miguel H. Diaz, who was the first Hispanic U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. "But one has to be fair, we’ve had two popes in succession that are not Italian. There could be a desire to go to back to the Italian pope."

Of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, 42 percent are from Latin America, the largest group in the Church, according to the Population Reference Bureau. A study in 2007, by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found 68 percent of U.S. Hispanics are Catholic.

Hispanics are considered critical to the Catholic Church in the United States, which has witnessed a significant drop in membership in recent decades. Since 1960, Latinos have contributed to 71 percent of the growth of Catholic Church in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Spanish is the most spoken language in Catholic churches across the world.

Current speculation of which current Latin American cardinals who could ascend to the papacy include:

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina:  Born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents and is 69 years old, he held the third highest position as chief of staff of the Vatican from 2000-2007. Sandri is the prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras:  The Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and 70 years old, he was proclaimed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.  He is considered a moderate, a major advocate for the poor, and is known for his criticisms of capitalism.

Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil: The 65-year-old took over the Vatican department for religious congregations in 2011. Brazil is the world’s most Catholic country with 130 million out of nearly 200 million.

Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino: The 76-year-old has been the Archbishop of Havana, Cuba, since 1981. He has been a strong voice in Cuban-American, and a negotiator of sorts between the Cuban exile community in the U.S.  and Cubans still in the island.

Marilyn Santos, president of the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana, said the Vatican would be smart to pick a successor in the Latin American community.

“There is no other stronger message: You matter. You are valued,” Santos said. “For so many years, in spite of the advances, the majority of us are still marginalized, and to now become the center? The celebrations and the tears of joy, it would just explode.”

While the Vatican is in Italy, the center of the Catholic Church and its future lies south of the equator in Latin America and Africa, experts said. The election of a Hispanic Pope would not only serve as a symbolic victory, but it would also emphasize a shift in Catholicism in the United States. 

Many have abandoned the Catholic Church, alienated by the church’s views on abortion, gay issues and women’s rights. Latinos, however, tend to be more conservative on social issues and thus have remained more loyal to the church. Many Latinos, particularly those from modest economic backgrounds, also view the Catholic Church as playing an important role in uplifting the poor.

“Latinos are not caught in the liberal vs. conservative Catholic Church debate,” said Timothy Matovina, a theology professor and executive director of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.  “Latinos care about ‘how are we going to equip the church to serve our people?’”

Matovina, author of the book “Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church”, believes a Latin American Pope would prioritize a “mission mode” style for the Catholic Church, meaning leaders would concentrate on programs that relieve social ills.

Mario Paredes, director of Catholic Ministries of the American Bible Society, said while a Latino pope is imminent, it will not happen this time around.

“We just don’t have the right candidates, mainly, because of their ages,” said Paredes.  The Catholic Church will look for a younger candidate whose health won’t impede holding office for a longer period of time than Pope Benedict XVI.

If a Latin American pope is not elected by the College of Cardinals, U.S. Catholic leaders believe José Horacio Gomez, the 61-year-old Archbishop of Los Angeles, will be ready for the job should it become available again.

Gomez is the first Hispanic to serve as Archbishop of Los Angeles and is the highest-ranking Hispanic bishop in the United States. In four years, he is expected to become the first Hispanic Cardinal in U.S. history.

But experts say the Vatican would never appoint an American to the post because U.S. candidates tend to not have the same linguistic abilities to speak all the necessary languages. The Vatican is also leery of polarizing Muslims and others religious groups because of American foreign policy, and are particularly against choosing a pope from a superpower nation.

Still, Paredes believes the next in line after Benedict is more likely to be an American than a Latin American. He thinks Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City is a viable candidate.

“He’s well liked in Rome, young, very popular, and very personal,” Paredes said. “The Cold War is over, we live in a globalized world…if we chose a German pope after Hitler, we can choose an American pope.”

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Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.

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