CARACAS, Venezuela, March 14 (UPI) -- The late leader Hugo Chavez swayed Jesus to inspire the College of Cardinals to elect Catholics' first South American pope, Venezuela's interim president said.
"We know that our commander ascended to those heights and is face to face with Christ. Something must have influenced [Jesus] to call for a South American pope," Nicolas Maduro said on national television at the opening of an international book fair in Caracas, Venezuela's capital.
"Some new hand arrived and Christ said, 'Now is the opportunity for South America,' it seems to us," Maduro said.
The papal conclave Wednesday elected Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, to be the Roman Catholic Church's 266th pontiff. Bergoglio, who took the papal name Francis, is the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.
Chavez, who led a nationalistic "Bolivarian Revolution" in the 1990s and was Venezuela's authoritarian president for nearly 14 years, died March 5 at age 58 after nearly two years of an unspecified cancer and being treated several times in Cuba.
Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor who faces opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski in a special election April 14 to choose a new president, also said the late president might "call a constitutional assembly in heaven at any moment to change the [Catholic] church on Earth so the people -- the pure people of Christ -- may govern the world."