April 2, 2005
VATICAN CITY - The intense guessing game over who will be the next pope has only one certainty: the cardinals must decide whether to follow John Paul II with another non-Italian or hand the papacy back to its traditional caretakers.
The Polish-born John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and brought a new vitality to the Vatican, challenging parochial attitudes throughout the church. One view holds that the papal electors will want to maintain the spirit by recognizing the Roman Catholic centers of gravity outside Europe in Latin America and Africa.
Another theory suggests that the Italians will press to reclaim the papacy after John Paul's 26-year reign - the third-longest in history.
There is no clear favorite when the 117 cardinals begin their secret conclave later this month.
But names often mentioned as "papabile" - the Italian word for possible papal candidates - include Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican-based Nigerian, and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes.
Arinze, 72, converted to Roman Catholicism as a child and shares some of John Paul's conservative views on contraception and family issues. But he brings a unique element: representing a nation shared between Muslims and Christians at the time when interfaith relations assume growing urgency. If elected, he would be the first black pope of modern times.
Hummes, 70, is archbishop of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and urges more attention to fighting poverty and the effects of a globalized economies. His supporters note that Brazil's role as a Latin American political and economic heavyweight could help the Vatican counter the popularity of emerging evangelical churches in the region.
Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodiguez Maradiaga of Honduras, the 62-year-old archbishop of Tegucigalpa, is also mentioned as a possible candidate. But he could be too much of a break for Vatican conservatives. He has studied clinical psychology and has a dynamic, outspoken style.
Among Italians, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Milan, is a moderate with natural pastoral abilities and an easy style that appeals to the young. But Tettamanzi, 71, is not considered widely traveled and some critics believe he could impose too strong an Italian outlook.
Other Italians widely mentioned as possible candidates include: Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, 63, who is relatively young and brings a cosmopolitan flair from his city, a historic cultural crossroads; and Giovanni Battista Re, 71, who has served as president of the Vatican commission for Latin America since 2001.
Within Europe, several cardinals are seen as possible rising stars, potentially able to win support in the way Karol Wojtyla, then archbishop of Krakow, Poland, did in the 1978 conclave that elevated him to pope. They include: Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the 69-year-old archbishop of Vienna, Austria, who is multilingual and has diplomatic flair, and Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 71, who is well known in political and diplomatic circles.
John Paul's papacy was so long, some Vatican watchers suggest the conclave could look to an older "transitional" pope, who would not try to put a strong personal stamp on the papacy.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German who heads the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the leading name under this scenario. Ratzinger, who will turn 78 before the conclave, was a close confidant of the late pope and is favored by those who want to preserve John Paul's conservative views.
Europe has the biggest bloc with 58 papal electors - cardinals under 80 years old. Italy alone has 20.
Latin America has 21 and Africa brings 11. The United States also has 11 cardinals and could sway the voting if they remain united. An American pope, however, is considered a virtual impossibility because of the Vatican would avoid any such a deep and complicated association with the world's sole superpower.
Any other forecast would find itself on shaky ground.
One only has to recall that after two days and eight rounds of voting 26 years ago, the name of Karol Wojtyla - never mentioned as a serious candidate - was announced to the crowd in St. Peter's Square. Many there were baffled.