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Puente: College of cardinals should look for a Pope with a different background

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives for

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI promised top Vatican officials he would remain in "spiritual proximity" with them even after he resigns next week, at the end of a week-long spiritual retreat in the Vatican. (Feb. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

The cardinals in Rome should choose an Asian, African or Latin American to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

If the cardinals vote based on where they come from, then it is unlikely we would see a pope who is not from Europe, where every pope in modern history was born. A majority of the 117 cardinals come from Europe.

But their nationalities do not reflect the changing demographics of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

There are around 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and a majority of Catholics now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The biggest concentration of Catholics is in Latin America and the Caribbean, at 39 percent. This is followed by Europe at 24 percent, sub-Saharan Africa at 16 percent, Asia and the Pacific at 12 percent, North America at 8 percent and the Middle East and North Africa at 1 percent, according to 2010 figures from the Pew Research Center.

The five countries with the largest Catholic populations are Brazil (more than 125 million), Mexico (96 million), the Philippines and the United States (approximately 75 million each) and Italy (roughly 50 million).

Selecting a Latin American pope would help the Catholic Church further grow the number of faithful in the United States and Latin America.

An African or Asian pope would help grow Catholicism on those continents.

Most Catholics are no longer European and putting a nonwhite face on the papacy might inspire the faithful around the world. They would be able to see themselves better reflected in the church.

The names of several non-European cardinals have been mentioned as possible successors to Pope Benedict, who became the first pope to announce his resignation in more than 600 years. They include Peter Turkson of Ghana, Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras, and Odilo Scherer and Joao Braz de Aviz, both from Brazil.

Of course, our faith should be colorblind. Race, ethnicity or nationality should not be a qualification for the job.

What Catholics need most is a leader who will welcome everyone into the church and who will look at ways to examine whether church doctrine makes sense in today's modern world. Birth control, gay marriage and women priests are just some of the issues some Catholics like myself would like the church to re-examine. The world is changing, and the church needs to change, too.

Catholics also need a leader who will protect our children and will vigorously prosecute those priests or clergy who sexually abuse the vulnerable.

The cardinals should select a pope who will best represent the faith and most eloquently speak for those who are voiceless and oppressed. And the pope must be a universal leader who can inspire us to live by the golden rule to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

When the smoke signals rise from the Vatican indicating the conclave of cardinals has selected a new pope, it would be powerful if this time the ashes were a shade darker than white.

Teresa Puente teaches journalism at Columbia College Chicago and also writes the Chicanisima blog.