Miguel Diaz, the former US Ambassador to the Vatican, is one of the few Americans who got to know Pope Benedict XVI on a personal level.
"He had a personal way of relating to my family, when we asked him to pray about the kids, he would always smile and in an affirmative way convey to us that he would do so," Díaz told Fox News Latino.
The Cuban-American is the first Hispanic to ever represent the US at the Holy See and, as a result, has had a front row seat to Benedict's pontificate – and therefore is more keenly aware of who needs to be the next pope.
He said choosing a Latino pope would be beneficial. But, ultimately, whoever is chosen needs to be a pastor, he said.
"We need a pope who is a pastor, who can help heal the tremendous suffering all around us that includes the sexual abuse, reaching out to sexual abuse victims, that includes those victims of poverty, that includes victims of violence,” said Díaz, now a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton. “We also need a pope diplomat, who can embrace the great diversity of opinions and peoples that include cultural and racial diversity."
Pope Benedict was revered for his intellect and his theological contributions. But Vatican observers and experts believe the next pope will be someone more like Pope John Paul II, a leader with oratory gift that can excite and inspire large audiences through speeches and prayer.
As the world waits for the College of Cardinals to convene the conclave and choose the next pope, Díaz believes there is certainly a possibility that the church will choose the world's first Hispanic pope. It would be a sign of Catholicism's growing influence in the developing world.
The majority, or 41 percent, of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in Latin America – therefore a Latino pope would almost immediately be perceived as someone in touch with the needs of Catholics.
A Pope from the Southern Hemisphere would also bring sensitivity to poverty issues, he said.
“Latin America has dealt for ages with issues dealing with cross cultural, cross religious and cross racial relationships in good ways and sometimes in not so good ways,” he said “But someone clearly with that awareness would bring something to the table in terms of becoming the universal pastor."
Diaz will not be in Rome during the selection process. But as the former Vatican ambassador, the point man to the United States from 2009 to 2012, he knows more than most Americans how the Holy See operates.
"We need a joyful pope,” he said. “Someone who can bring to the human family a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of reconciliation."
Under Díaz's nearly three and-a-half years of service, the Catholic Church was embroiled in a slew of sexual abuse allegations and saw its membership shrink as secularism and evangelicalism gained strength. At the same time, he said, Christian minorities were coming under threat in parts of the Middle East.
"You know how difficult this has been?” he said. “I mean, this has really been a difficult period for the pope."
As ambassador, and now, Diaz has tried to raise awareness on issues like human trafficking and AIDS. He also has been working with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promote human rights and religious freedom globally.
But his next mission, he said, is to encourage the next pope, whoever it is, to visit the United States.
"I would invite the Holy Father to ... experience this great American principle,” he said. “That universality of the many faces that comprise the Catholic Church in the U.S. is something I want the Holy Father to experience."
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