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12 names to watch who could become the next pope

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An Italian restoration?

The Italians view the papal throne as their birthright, and having lent it to a Pole and now a German for 35 years, many say it’s time for an Italian restoration. The favorite among the Italians would be Cardinal Angelo Scola, 70, the Archbishop of Milan. Milan has traditionally been a stepping stone for future popes, and Scola, often associated with the conservative Communion and Liberation movement, is a Benedict favorite.

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Scola is an intellectual, but also open to the media. Asked in October 2003 by CNN to identify the main challenge facing the church, Scola said the principal one was the "fracture" between the church and contemporary culture.

Other Italian options are Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 69, the strong-willed head of the Italian bishops since 2007. Bagnasco is close to Benedict and has learned to navigate the treacherous waters of church and worldly powers. Or there is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 69, an affable scholar who peppers almost every sentence with quotations from a staggering array of classical and modern writers and philosophers. He lacks international standing, however, and has never headed a large diocese.

A papal samba? Or a tango?

Latin America is home to the greatest concentration of Catholics in the world, and Brazil has the most baptized Catholics of any country. Rio de Janeiro is hosting World Youth Day, a huge Catholic jamboree that the pope traditionally presides over, this July. It could also be a homecoming of sorts if the cardinals choose Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, currently archbishop of Sao Paolo. The arguments are strong: Scherer, 62, is a German-Brazilian who has headed the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic country since 2007, and he studied and worked in Rome.

But Scherer could have some in-house competition from Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, who has headed the Vatican’s congregation that oversees the world’s religious orders of priests and nuns since January 2011. He has curial credentials but also showed he wanted to change the way Rome managed its relations with religious men and women worldwide, aiming at dialogue and collaboration rather than confrontation.

Then there is Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. If the cardinals want to turn to a Latin American without leaving Rome, they could pick Sandri. He’s an Argentine, yes, but since 2000 he has been in the Roman curia, the papal bureaucracy, and is considered the ultimate Roman insider. He would be seen as a "safe pair of hands" to steer the church in difficult times and restore order to the Curia. The lack of experience at the head of a large diocese could set him back, however, and cardinals who don’t live in Rome — or love Rome, as many don’t — may not be so enamored.

The once bright star of Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 69, has dimmed considerably since the media-savvy prelate was the favored Latin American option at the most recent conclave. Still, he enjoys strong name recognition in the Catholic world.

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An Asian tiger?

Asia is a small but potent source of growth and strength for the Catholic Church. Of all the bishops in this diverse continent, one stands out: Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. At 55, he is something of a "baby bishop," and he would be the youngest pope in centuries. But Tagle is appealing: smiling, humble and perceptive, Tagle impressed many of his fellow bishops during the 2012 Synod on New Evangelization in Rome. He called for a more humble church that puts more effort in listening to its flock; just a few days later, Benedict made him a cardinal. Tagle — who studied at Catholic University of America in Washington — has also taken a strong approach to the sexual abuse crisis, warning his fellow bishops from Asia that they must not dismiss it as a Western phenomenon.

Still, his relative youth, and his brief experience as the head of a major diocese (he was appointed to Manila in 2011), will probably make him an outsider in this conclave.

The dark horse?

Everyone loves a long shot — the dark horse who comes out of nowhere to win by a nose. And even the cardinals do the unexpected at times. Could they go with a non-cardinal for the first time in centuries? A popular favorite would be Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Martin is 67, and spent nearly three decades working in the Roman curia, which gives him serious standing. But he also got the most thankless job in Christendom when John Paul sent him to Dublin a decade ago to clean up the clergy sex abuse scandal and start a reformation in the church. He has done a remarkable job, but has stepped on lots of sensitive toes in the hierarchy, even as he has won the hearts of many Irish Catholics. His outspokenness is seen by many as one reason he’s never won a cardinal’s red hat.

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