Who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI? Vatican insiders are dropping a number of names. One thing's for sure: the conclave's selection is certain to have a fundamental impact on the direction of the Catholic Church.
Will the pope again be someone from Europe? Or could there be a courageous decision to choose someone from another continent - like Brazil's Odilo Pedro Scherer, Columbia's Salazar Gomez or Ghana's Peter Kodwo Apiah Turkson?
There is no shortage of candidates, and speculation is mounting in church circles about the future course of the Vatican.
The wish list is long and growing. Cologne's Archbishop and Cardinal Joachim Meisner would like to see a successor "vitally healthy," a person about 70 years old, smart and as well-educated as his predecessor Joseph Ratzinger alias Benedict XVI. Meisner's ideal candidate would be a "mixture of Wojtyla [who became John Paul II] and Ratzinger."
Meisner's colleague Rainer Maria Woelki in Berlin shares a similar view. There is "nothing wrong" with a pope in his mid 60s or early 70s, he says. The new pope, he adds, should have a heart for people and be able to reach them linguistically.
Woelki is 59 years old and the youngest in the polyglot College of Cardinals, which will assemble in Rome to select a new pope. The archbishop says he could well imagine someone from Africa or Latin America, adding that it makes "absolutely no difference" to him from which continent the new pope comes.
Meisner, Woelki and other cardinals and bishops would like to see a young pope, and understandably so. In April 2005, the conclave selected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope three days after his 78th birthday. At his first appearance on the St. Peter's loggia, he looked much younger than he does today. Now, eight years later, he said his "strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."
Back to a Roman?
In addition to age, another key issue is whether the block of 28 Italians in the conclave, perhaps together with conservative Spaniards and a few French, will push again for an Italian - even possibly a Curia cardinal or archbishop who comes from within the system.
Or could there be, as there was in 1978 with Poland's Wojtyla and in 2005 with Germany's Ratzinger, a pope again from outside Italy? Or perhaps for the fist time from the "young churches" in Africa, Asia or Latin America? There are a number of well-educated, well-connected and multilingual representatives in their ranks. Choosing one of them would reflect developments in the Catholic Church, whose numbers of followers in Europe continue to dwindle.
The Italians may be inclined to look again for a patriarch from Venice, home to all three popes in the 20th century. But the current archbishop there is not even 60 years old, still too young and not even a cardinal. Angelo Scola, who moved from Venice to Milan in 2011, is obviously in his prime at 71. But some question his health.
Gianfranco Ravasi, the pope's "Cultural Minister," is drawing a lot of attention. He has proven himself in dealing with non-believers and atheists, is well-educated and is often compared with the young Ratzinger and Wojtyla.
Yet despite the huge Italian block in the conclave, it is far from certain that an Italian will be selected. The country's bishops are split into diverse camps.
Strong Italian fraction
If members of the conclave should look beyond Europe, they are unlikely to elect a US American. The country has been deeply shaken by the children abuse scandals and investigations continue. Even though the US has some impressively enlightened bishops and cardinals, the Catholic Church there currently has no power or radiance.
Still, Canada's Marc Ouellet is a promising North America name. The 68-year-old monk is perfect of the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops and, in this role, has been a "maker" of bishops for years. He could draw votes from the northern hemisphere, particularly from the English-speaking countries.
Four other names come from four different countries - each a sensation in itself. They include the 73-year-old Brazilian Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo, who had worked for years in the Vatican. His country is already one of the most important "Catholic" countries in the world, with an aura of liberation theology.
The 70-year-old Columbian Ruben Salazar Gomez has a strong reputation, among others, for his church networking skills across the Latin American continent. And there are plenty more names from Latin America..
Curial Cardinal Turkson, 64, is a Ghanaian, has served as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is well liked. He also goes on difficult missions. Even if that isn't a papal duty, his work is highly recognized thanks to his personal charisma and language skills, including German. He is the only serious contender from Africa.
The resignation decision of Benedict XVI, compared to the death of a pope, offers more time for speculation and informal camps to form. That can lead to uncertainty on all sides. Benedict's move highlights the frightening size of the office, its tasks and demands.
There may be no real favorites with the conclave meets, but there is a Roman saying "Entrare Papa et uscire Cardinale" - "Who enters as a pope returns as a cardinal."