While some priests say talk of a papal resignation is in bad taste, others are looking for the man who will come after John Paul II, and there's a chance it might be German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Is Ratzinger next in line?
For the first time in 26 years the pope did not celebrate Ash Wednesday mass, yet again ratcheting up speculation concerning who will follow him and when. Vatican officials said Thursday that John Paul II had recovered from his recent illness and was being released from hospital.
But the pope's ailing health has still caused high-ranking church leaders to think about his succession. His top aide, Angelo Sodano, broke with official Vatican policy and openly addressed the possibility that the pope might retire if he felt he could not run the Church.
"Let's leave that up to the conscience of the pope," said Sodano, who in the past dismissed talk of papal retirement. "We have to have enormous faith in him. He knows what he has to do."
Just what is "papable?"
In his 24 years as one of the Vatican's leading men, Ratzinger wasn't what many called pope material. But as the Catholic church looks back at John Paul's 26 years of leadership, the church is split on just what is "papable."
At 77 years old, Ratzinger's age is one of his biggest advantages. Some in the Church believe after a quarter century with a single pontiff, a transitional pope might be a change for the positive.
Vatican moderates fear Ratzinger would continue Karol Wojtyla's conservative style.
"Cardinal Ratzinger has been seen as a very important figure in the Vatican for many years, but also as a polarizing one, a figure who brings splits," said pope biographer Marco Politi. "He is seen as always taking the conservative orthodox course."
Willing to take interim post
Some think of Ratzinger (next to Pope) as a top conservative papal candidate
As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees moral and theological issues, all of Ratzinger's key decisions received the pontiff's blessing, leading some to call him "John Paul III" The Bavarian cardinal is against allowing priests to marry and has taken a hard line against abortion.
While it remains bad form to talk of the next pope in Rome, Dionigi Tettamanzi, Archbishop of Milan; Francis Arinze of Nigeria; Claudio Hummes, Archbishop of Sao Paulo; Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras; and Angelo Scola, another Italian, the Patriarch of Venice are also seen to be in the unofficial running for the pontiff position.
As the pews in Europe and North America remain empty, some observers have said a pontiff from Africa or Latin America would be a sign that the Church is moving with the times.
Possibly as a way of pleasing his supporters and calming his foes, Ratzinger himself has said if he were to become pontiff, he would be prepared "to give up the job after a few years."