By Rosemarie Francisco and Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - With attention turning from Europe to the "new" world, worshippers in the Philippines prayed quietly and took to social media on Tuesday in the hope their cardinal might be chosen as the next leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Many Catholics in the Philippines, the largest Christian community in Asia, were shocked by Pope Benedict's resignation, including their charismatic leader, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
"Pope Benedict XVI's renunciation of the ministry as Bishop of Rome on February 11, 2013 came as a surprise," Tagle said in a statement.
"The announcement also brought sadness to us. We felt like children clinging to a father who bids them farewell," he said, praising Benedict's "humility, honesty, courage and sincerity".
Stunning as it was, Benedict's resignation has thrown the papal spotlight outside the Church's European heartland, now home to only 25 percent of the Catholic population.
The post once reserved for Italians is now open for all, although about half the cardinals who will vote for the next pope after Benedict's reign ends on February 28 are from Europe.
Latin America represents the largest single bloc in the Church with 42 percent of Catholics, putting Latin Americans and African cardinals among the front-runners to succeed 85-year-old Pope Benedict.
Tagle's close alignment to Pope Benedict, an uncompromising conservative on social and theological issues, could work in his favor, with the Philippines a bulwark of Catholicism in a mainly Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist region.
He offered a glimpse of that conservatism in comments published after his elevation to cardinal in November: "The Church must discover the power of silence.
"Confronted with the sorrows, doubts and uncertainties of people, she cannot pretend to give easy solutions," he said.
Many Filipinos felt the Church could do worse than choose Tagle, at 55 relatively young, as its next leader.
"The Filipino cardinal, Luis Antonio Tagle, will be a long-shot but he could be considered because he is also known as a Vatican insider and a former adviser of the Pope," said Joselito Zulueta, a teacher, journalist and analyst of church affairs in the Philippines.
Tagle's personal appeal has been compared to that of the late Pope John Paul and he worked with Pope Benedict at the International Theological Commission.
Father Francis Lucas of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said a Filipino pope would be like "a dream".
"He is humble, he's meek, he's simple, he's spiritual, he's media savvy, he's very bright."
But Tagle's youth, and the fact that he only became a cardinal late in 2012, may work against him. "What we should do is not pray for Cardinal Tagle but pray for the right pope, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, to be elected by the cardinal members of the conclave," Lucas said.
The Twitter hashtag "#Tagleforpope" appeared within hours of Benedict's statement, with one comment among scores posted on Tuesday saying of Tagle: "Archbishop of Manila in 2011, Cardinal in 2012, Pope in 2013?"
"Cardinal Tagle is qualified, young and can bring more energy to the Catholic Church," said Maria Paz Balagot, a sales executive in Manila's financial district.
While hope grew in the Philippines, Australia's Cardinal George Pell, a conservative supporter of Benedict's among the conclave of cardinals, cautioned against seeing Benedict's resignation as the start of a new era for the Church.
"Every pope presents a change," Pell said in an internal video interview conducted by the Church in Australia. "I'm pretty confident that there'll be a basic continuity."
(Additional reporting by Erik dela Cruz in MANILA and Rob Taylor in CANBERRA; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Alex Richardson)