As they converge on Rome from all over the globe, the guessing game has begun as to which of the 117 cardinals will soon become Holy Father to the world's 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic family.
Unlike in any other election in the world, visible campaigning for the conclave is discouraged. Cardinals don't exactly take a bus and a megaphone on the campaign trail. Without public debates or opinion polls, it's almost impossible to know who the favorite contender might be - although some online gambling sites offer odds on top candidates. Cardinals who spill the beans about their voting plans risk excommunication.
What they do seem to feel free to discuss, without mentioning any names, is what they will be looking for in a new pope.
Observers say a pope who shares John Paul II's charisma and communication savvy would be ideal in today's media-dominated world. But the next pope, they add, must also be a good manager, taking care not to neglect the internal workings of the Vatican.
"John Paul II was such a towering figure that in a way he blotted out everything else," says John Allen, author of "Conclave," a guide to the next papal election. "In many parts of the world people knew all about the pope but they did not know the name of their local bishop."
After a period of top heavy, Rome-centric governance, many lay Catholics are hoping for some autonomy and a louder voice in Church debates.
"Nobody wants a dull, milquetoast pope now," Mr. Allen says. "But many feel it might help to have less of a personality cult and more communication inside the Church - not just with the world outside."
While several cardinals stand out as "papabili" (possible popes), conclave history has produced endless surprises, including Karol Wojtyla himself, giving rise to the adage: "He who goes in a pope comes out a cardinal."
The greatest asset of the Nigerian Francis Arinze, besides the symbolic power of his black skin, is his expertise in what will probably be one of the Church's greatest challenges this century: relations between Christianity and Islam. Nigeria, torn apart by religious war between its northern Islamists and southern Christians, is one of the world's toughest training grounds in inter-religious diplomacy.
Latin America, though - home to more than 40 percent of the world's Catholics - lays the strongest claim to the argument that it is time for a pope from the developing world. Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, from Honduras, is tipped as a favorite, although, in the wake of a papacy some felt went on too long, his relatively young age may work against him.
Claudio Hummes, from Brazil, the nation with the most Catholics, is another frontrunner, seen as having a good mix of conservative morals and a proactive social approach. Also mentioned often is Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
In Europe, Belgium's Godfried Danneels is on many Western wish lists. He is one of the most outspoken liberals in the college, challenging John Paul II's opposition to condoms for preventing HIV/AIDS.
More likely are the Italian contenders, Giovanni Battista Re and Dionigi Tettamanzi, both of whom are staunch conservatives. Italians would like to reclaim the 400-year plus monopoly they held on the papacy until the election of Karol Wojtyla.
Germany's Joseph Ratzinger has emerged as a leading figure. As head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was No. 3 in Pope John Paul II's Vatican hierarchy. This insider, now Dean of the College of Cardinals is perhaps more rigid than was John Paul II on issues like abortion. Standing in for the ailing pope during Easter ceremonies, he launched a diatribe against the "filth and arrogance" he said had infiltrated the Church today.
Ratzinger is an icon for conservative Catholics, who have set up a website (ratzingerfanclub.com) and distributed Ratzinger keyrings, speeches, and stickers.
Virtually all agree that none of the 11 American Cardinals will become pope. "Even the appearance of being in some sense captured by the world's only superpower would not be helpful to the mission of the Church," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in recent days.
Because John Paul II appointed 93 percent of today's cardinals, the choice later this month is not between conservative or progressive candidates. It is almost certain a conservative will get the nod.
"There is no single overriding issue dominating the Cardinal's thoughts," says Allen. "What will swing this election is who is friends with whom."