Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he would resign by month’s end took the church and the world by surprise, largely because it was a move without precedent in the modern world.
But what comes next is as old and familiar as the papacy itself: speculating about who will succeed to the Throne of St. Peter.
Indeed, within months of Benedict’s own election in 2005, church insiders and online oddsmakers were trying to figure out who might be next, given that Benedict — now 85 — was already aging, increasingly frail, and had himself declared that he did not expect his reign to be a long one.
So what will happen when the world’s cardinals gather before the splendor of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope? Who are the "papabile," as the Italians say, the "pope-able" cardinals?
Will the conclave make the epochal break with the European monopoly and pick a cardinal from Latin America or Africa? The Catholic Church is booming in the Southern Hemisphere, as opposed to Europe and North America, where it is barely treading water.
"In my eyes it would be a good thing if a candidate from Latin America or Africa were elected at the next conclave," Cardinal Kurt Koch, a Swiss prelate who is the Vatican’s top official for dialogue with other churches, said in December.
The future of the church "does not lie in Europe," Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, a German whom Benedict tapped last year to serve as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, said in a separate interview in December. "I know a number of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the entire world church."
Age is also a consideration: Will the conclave look to a younger cardinal? The last decade of Pope John Paul II’s reign was focused on his declining health, to the point that it was almost a death watch, and Benedict’s tenure has always been as much about his age as his policies.
Here is a look at some of the candidates whose names have been discussed, publicly and privately, in recent months, and their chances.
An American pope?
That possibility has always been dismissed out of hand, and with good reason. The United States leaves such big political, military and cultural footprints around the globe that handing the papacy — the world’s spiritual superpower — to the Yanks would be unthinkable. But New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, has serious Roman experience — he speaks passable Italian, which is key — and connections.
Dolan’s relative youth, energy and media savvy would be just the kind of jolt that the church needs. Still, a Dolan papacy is a huge long shot, so if the cardinals want a North American compromise they could turn to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a French-Canadian. Canada has a vastly different profile in the world, and Ouellet, 68, the former archbishop of Quebec, is multilingual, a disciple of Benedict’s theological views and served for years as a missionary in Latin America. Most important, since 2010 he’s headed the Vatican department that helps the pope select new bishops. That means he knows everyone in the hierarchy, and many owe him something.
An Obama for the papacy?
Catholicism in Africa is booming, and the idea of an African pope has long captured the imagination of many inside and outside the church. A pope from Africa would be such a visible sign of change in an institution that marks time in centuries, and yet it would also be a return to the church’s roots in the Middle East and North Africa, where it flourished in the early centuries. It would be a clear bet on the church’s future.
If the cardinals in the conclave turn to an African, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana seems most likely to get the nod. Turkson is a media-friendly, multilingual 64-year-old who has the requisite Roman experience and connections, having served as head of Benedict’s Justice and Peace Council — sort of the Vatican’s human rights commission — since 2009.
At the time of his Vatican appointment, Turkson was asked whether he thought the time was right for a black pope, given that America had its first black president in Barack Obama. "Why not?" Turkson replied. But Turkson has also made impolitic statements about Islam, which many view as the great threat facing African Christianity, and some think the time is still not ripe for a pope from the continent.
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