Guessing game in battle for papal succession
VATICAN CITY - The death of Pope John Paul II set in motion a chain of events laid down by centuries of papal tradition, but the face of the next pontiff is a guess no one dares to hazard.
No one knows for sure and those who might have an idea -- the cardinals who actually choose the next leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics -- are keeping their hands close to their chests.
Nevertheless the process is under way, triggered automatically by the death Saturday of the conservative 84-year-old John Paul II, who had headed the Holy See since his own election in 1978.
No doubt the impending election will be on their minds when cardinals hold their first congregation Monday to begin planning the pontiff's funeral.
However, procedures dictate that the conclave at which cardinals choose a successor will not start until at least two weeks after the pope's death, but no later than 20 days.
One of the few to have talked about the succession, Cardinal Francis George of the Chicago archdiocese, said he hoped the next pope would not make radical changes.
"People think things are up for grabs that aren't up for grabs," he told a press conference Saturday after a memorial mass.
However, he admitted, "we may need a different kind of pope."
British newspapers on Sunday were betting on Brazil's 70-year-old Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of Sao Paulo.
"Like the majority of his brother electors, he is conservative on matters of church doctrine, but he is unmistakably radical on social issues," the Sunday Times said.
It noted that "Latin America, which has 21 voting cardinals and is home to half the world's baptised Catholics, is expected to stake a strong claim to the papacy if, as is probable, no candidate achieves the required two-thirds majority in the early ballots."
But some Vatican insiders think cardinals will likely return to a safe Italian candidate -- John Paul II was the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years.
"I don't think the college of electors will risk electing a foreigner. The Italians are the inner circle," one said under cover of anonymity.
In that case, the front-runner could be Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, who as archbishop of Milan oversees the most populous diocese in Europe. Aged 71, he is seen as an intellectual, a pastor and someone who would have new ideas.
Another Italian possible is Angelo Scola, patriarch or archbishop of Venice who at 63 counts as one of the Church's younger set.
A moderate, he is thought likely to have the backing of Opus Dei, a highly conservative grouping which has several European and Latin American cardinals among its supporters.
But his relatively young age could work against him, according to the Austrian independent daily Kurier.
"Many cardinals feel that after the long (26-year) rule of John Paul II, the church needs a transitional pope," it added.
Away from Italy, potential candidates are 77-year-old cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the influential German head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, the 62-year-old Honduran cardinal who has campaigned against poverty; and Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia.
Ivan Dias, the 69-year-old archbishop of Bombay, carries the best hopes of the Indian sub-continent.
Nigeria's Francis Arinze is regarded by many as the best non-Italian bet. A conservative, he would become the first African pope since Gelasius I in the late fifth century.
Factors that may influence the cardinals range from policy -- conservative or liberal, bridge-builder or doctrinaire? -- to the mundane, such as whether someone might be a good bureaucrat running the huge Vatican machinery but less gifted as a pastor in the field.
The age factor underpins the question: Does the Church need a relatively youthful pope to drive the Church forward for the foreseeable future at a time of declining belief in God?
A poll Sunday in the daily Le Parisien found 53 percent of French people in favour of a "more progressive" pope than John Paul II, while 27 percent wanted continuity and only 13 percent a more traditional successor.
Don't expect any public jockeying by the cardinals, however.
Under the rules laid down in John Paul II's 1996 constitution they must abstain under pain of excommunication from any form of agreement or promise that would influence their vote, and they are not allowed to vote for themselves.
George, the archbishop of Chicago, said he expected debate to be heated but predicted the process would not last more than a week.
"I think we'll all be cordial, but I expect there will be great differences of opinion," he said.
Both John Paul II and his immediate predecessor were compromise candidates who emerged because of deadlocks over cardinals who had initially seemed more promising when the conclave got under way.