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Hondurans Hope One of Their Own Will Be Next Pope

Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga is Honduras' first Catholic cardinal and one of the country's most highly respected public figures. He is also one of the cardinals frequently named as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II.

Faithful and grief-stricken Catholics recently packed into Tegucigalpa's cathedral for a special mass for John Paul. The Polish pope was greatly admired here, but Hondurans are also excited by the possibility that the cardinal from this small poverty-stricken nation, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, may succeed him.

Of course, that is by no means a certainty. The cardinals who will name the next pope have only begun their meeting in the Vatican. And speculation as to who will be the next pope is not limited to Honduras. Many other cardinals from different regions of the world are seen as possible successors to John Paul. But the fact that Cardinal Rodriguez is even being mentioned as a credible candidate appeared to delight manyHondurans at the Mass for John Paul, including Argentina de Chavez.

The idea that he could attain that post makes us happy and gives us hope, she says, adding that Honduras is most often known internationally for negative things like corruption, graft and AIDS and that this would be something positive.

The 62-year-old Rodriguez has led the Honduran Catholic Church - first as an archbishop and as Cardinal since 2001- for the past 11 years. In that time, he has become a key actor in national affairs and gained a reputation as a staunch defender of the poor.

The charismatic cardinal is known for his push for the reform of the nation's police force, helping to rebuild the country after Hurricane Mitch leveled it in 1998, and directing a national commission to fight the nation's notorious corruption problem. His spokesperson, Father Jose Jesus Mora, believes that it's these actions that endear him to so many Hondurans.

Despite the fact that Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez is a religious figure, he says, he will be remembered in Honduras for his contributions to democracy in the country.

But even though he is often called the most popular person in Honduras, not everyone here approves of his involvement in politics.

Victor Meza is a political analyst who runs a research institution in Tegucigalpa. By law there is a separation of church and state here, he says, adding that the Catholic Church would do better to keep a distance from the earthly concerns of the state.

Rodriguez flies airplanes, speaks eight languages and plays 10 instruments. But despite his many and varied talents, his sister Maria Hortensia Rodriguez says his destiny as a man of the cloth might have been cast when he was born two months premature and given only a slim chance for survival.

She says that her mother prayed to the Virgin Mary, saying that if she let him live, she would give him over to her. As a child, she says, her brother would baptize her dolls and celebrate play Masses, using newspapers to make the vestments of a priest.

Like John Paul, Cardinal Rodriguez follows traditional Vatican teaching on matters of faith and morals. He is opposed to abortion and birth control and women priests. On social issues, he is considered a strong advocate of the poor.

He played a key role in Pope John Paul's effort to persuade rich countries to ease the debt of developing countries. And as Father German Calix, who runs the Catholic Church's social programs in Honduras explains, the cardinal also speaks internationally about the plight of third world nations. He has become a voice for all these countries, he says, adding that he has talked often about the need to reform international financial systems and the world economy so that commerce can be more fair and humane.

At the Mass, the congregation prays for the soul of the late pope and for his successor. While many people here say that they pray for Cardinal Rodriguez to be that successor, they also say they would miss him dearly.