As Pope John Paul II continues his 11-day tour of the Americas to Guatemala and Mexico this week, some Vatican observers suggest that his third trip to the region in less than a decade is one indication the next pope may be drawn from that part of the world.
Latin America is home to half the world's Catholics and several strong papal candidates, including cardinals from Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, and Cuba.
"The church is growing most in the Third World," notes Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. "To have a pope who is sensitive to the people and issues that make up the demographic future of Catholicism would be very important."
The pope arrives in Guatemala City Monday where he will canonize a 17th century apostle, creating Central America's first saint. Some 700,000 pilgrims are expected to attend the ceremony. Massive crowds are also expected for ceremonies in Mexico later in the week.
The Vatican recently signaled that Pope John Paul II will not retire from his office. But that hasn't stopped growing discussion in Rome and beyond about the future direction of the church, which will depend in large part on the policies of the next pope. Among the topics of debate: Will the successor uphold his conservative line, or take a more liberal approach on a wide range of issues?
As the Catholic Church sex scandals have unfolded, many Catholics in the US are publicly questioning not only how the church is administered, but also a wide range of church policies, from the celibacy of priests to bans on contraception and divorce.
After John Paul II's passing, a group of approximately 120 cardinals will vote in a series of secretive ballots held in the Sistine Chapel. But Vatican experts both here and in the US expect the next pontiff will be a moderate conservative and, quite possibly, the first from the developing world.
"The next pope will likely hold the same positions on the substantive issues as John Paul II does," says Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit Weekly, America in New York.
To become pope, a candidate must win a two-thirds majority of the votes of the cardinal electors, a gathering of all cardinals under the age of 80. Usually it takes many rounds of balloting to produce a winner, a process that can take weeks, even months, but is now usually resolved in a few days.
Virtually all of the eligible cardinal electors have been appointed by Pope John Paul II over the course of his nearly quarter-century in power. Of the 122 eligible electors, he has appointed 117, leading some to assume the next pope will be very much like the current one.
"People assume that because he's named [more than] 90 percent of the electors, they will elect somebody like him," says Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "But that just doesn't happen in the history of papal elections. The new pope will not be a photocopy of John Paul II."
During the 20th century, cardinals have often chosen popes quite different from the one who appointed them. In 1903, cardinals replaced the progressive Leo XIII with the reactionary Pius X, even though most of them had been appointed by Leo during his 25-year rule. Similarly, when the conservative Pius XII died in 1958, cardinals elected John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council, which modernized many church practices.
Most Vatican observers think that after a long, dramatic, and occasionally divisive papacy, the cardinals will be looking for a unifying figure, a theological conservative with a less hard-line approach than John Paul II, who has cracked down on dissenting views within the church.
"The next pope is not going to ordain women, is not going to change the church's teaching on homosexuality, is not going to allow homosexual unions, or let Catholics start using birth control," says John L. Allen Jr., author and Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter. "But I think there will be less of a rush to push people out of the church who say these things."
Popes were once nearly always Italian, but the election of John Paul II (who is Polish) shattered a 450-year tradition. Since 1978, the College of Cardinals has grown increasingly international, reflecting the growth of Catholicism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
"The church is rapidly approaching a point where you can say it's a non-European church," says John Paul Wauck, a professor at the Sante Croce Pontifical University in Rome. "The next pope, regardless of his nationality, will by necessity be a non-European pope."
While many observers look to Latin America as the source of the next pontiff, others look to Africa, where Catholicism is growing most rapidly. But Africa is seen as a long shot because of the lack of established church tradition there in comparison to Latin America or Europe.
Many of the strongest candidates are from European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Italy.
Observers say the only thing that's near certain is that the next pope won't be from the US. "The Vatican prizes its diplomatic neutrality too much to elect a superpower pope," says Mr. Allen. The cardinals may also fear that an American pope might be a lightning rod for terrorist attacks, creating new security challenges at the Vatican. The ongoing pedophilia scandal which most here regard as an American problem has further weakened US cardinals' potential candidacies.
Vatican watchers generally expect the next pope to be older probably in his mid-sixties as cardinals look for a transitional figure to give them time to digest the implications of John Paul II's long and extremely active pontificate.
"I doubt they'll elect somebody who is quite young," says Gerald O'Collins of the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, who thinks the cardinals want a shorter papacy next time around.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls finds all the speculation amusing. He recalls that during the last two papal elections in 1978, a very popular book was released in Italy entitled "Which Pope?" "It had all these great lists of different cardinals.... What a pity that the book didn't include two names: the man who was elected John Paul I and the one who was elected John Paul II."
Picking who will be the next pope is a perilous undertaking: the cardinal electors sometimes but not always surprise even seasoned Vatican experts with their choice. In theory, any of the 122 cardinal electors could be chosen by his peers. But a few names stand out in many people's minds.
Godfried Danneels, Belgium. A brilliant and widely-respected theologian, Danneels is seen as a unifying figure acceptable to both conservatives and progressives within the College of Cardinals.
Claudio Hummes, Brazil. Theologically conservative, but engaged in confronting poverty and other social problems, the Franciscan archbishop of San Paulo is considered one of the strongest Latin American candidates.
Jaime Lucas Ortega Y Alamino, Cuba. The Archbishop of Havana, Mr. Ortega has kept the church alive in defiance of Cuba's communist regime. Many see parallels with John Paul II, whom he has closely supported.
Francis Arinze, Nigeria. The head of the Vatican Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Mr. Arinze is the strongest African candidate. Personable and theologically conservative, Arinze has shown great loyalty to the current pope. But many cardinals are skeptical of a pontiff from Africa, where Catholicism has relatively shallow roots.
Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, Honduras. The personable archbishop of Tegucigalpa has long been seen as a rising star. His youth and a recent outburst against US press coverage of the Catholic sex scandals probably weakened his candidacy.
Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Colombia. Favorite of archconservatives, Mr. Castrillon is the head of the Vatican office of the clergy. A defender of traditional doctrine, he's taken a bold stance against his country's powerful drug lords.
Walter Kasper, Germany. Favorite of progressives, Mr. Kasper is a intellectual heavyweight who's advocated decentralization of the church, reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, and a more lenient stance towards divorced Catholics. Kasper, currently head of ecumenical affairs for the Vatican, may not fit the profile of a "transitional" pope.
Giovanni Battista Re, Italy. A theological moderate with unparalleled skills as an administrator, Mr. Re is regarded in some quarters as a perfect transitional figure. But his experience has been entirely within the Vatican, which may hurt his candidacy. His chances would improve if he serves as an archbishop before the next conclave.