As the world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II, a question looms large and near: Who will become the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church?
Vatican watchers have been speculating for years, and while they may disagree on who they think the next pope may be, there is some consensus on the factors that will play in the decision.
Much credence is being given to John Paul's appointment of all but a handful of the 117 cardinals currently eligible to vote in the group that will choose his successor. As a result, some expect the next pontiff will follow very much in the mold of his predecessor.
Vatican watchers also recognize that most of the Catholic Church's growth has come in the Third World -- leading to speculation that the next pope may not be European, much less Italian.
Then there is some consideration being given to the late pope's superstar status as a world leader. The presence of global media certainly means the next pope will have to be personable, multilingual and charismatic -- but there's expected to be some disagreement on if he will have a strong political role.
"This man, John Paul II, has been tremendously active as a world figure. He's been a voice throughout the world, he's the conscience of the world," said the Rev. Vincent O'Keefe, ABC News' consultant on Vatican issues. "Some would say, well, a pope shouldn't be in politics."
Yet papal elections are never easy to handicap. There is a Roman maxim, "He who goes into the conclave as pope comes out a cardinal."
The conclave of cardinals is responsible for electing a pope from their ranks.
Picking a pope is a political game, and various factions in the cardinals' conclave are going to be agitating to control the next holy father's stances, particularly hot-button sexual and doctrinal issues like priestly celibacy and remarriage after divorce.
A Move to Orthodoxy?
With the church still assimilating the changes from the Vatican II conference in the 1960s, such as moving the Mass from Latin to local languages, most Vatican watchers believe the majority of cardinals will back a candidate who, following in the steps of John Paul II, is cautious about changing church policy.
Others say a centrist candidate might ultimately be most appealing. "They'll certainly want nobody who's going to be viewed as polarizing," said the Rev. John Newhouse, editor of the Catholic journal First Things.
Facing the World
Half of the world's Catholics now live in Latin America, and 40 percent of the current Catholic bishops are from the Third World, which means that after the death of the first Polish pope, the cardinals may feel compelled to go beyond Europe.
"There's a much closer ear kept on what the international church is saying. That in itself, I think, is an indication of the church being far less Roman in the narrow sense of meaning mostly Italians leading and heading it up," Cardinal Wilfrid Napier told ABC News.
There are several strong Third World papabili (Italian for "popables" or possible popes), like cardinals Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino of Cuba and Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras, another papabili, told ABCNEWS he expected the field for the next pope to be "very wide open."
"The time will come when a pope will be from Latin America, and the time will come that a pope can come from Africa or from Asia," he said.
John Paul was criticized by many bishops for running a highly centralized church. "I've heard different cardinals say that perhaps what we need is to have more decision-making come from the different nations rather than from the central headquarters in Rome," said the Rev. Michael Fahey, editor of the Catholic quarterly Theological Studies.
"More than anything, they're going to be looking for a pope who is going to respect the authority and the autonomy of the local bishops," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theology professor and author of "Lives of the Popes."
The majority of bishops who run dioceses in the conclave have a desire for a more democratic papacy, which may mean the next pope won't be a lifelong Vatican bureaucrat. The Roman Curia, Vatican managers who tend to no local flocks, make up only 20 percent of the cardinalate.
But some dissenters say there's a desire within the episcopate to have a period of consolidation -- which might mean another Italian pope.
The one place the pope is guaranteed not to hail from is the United States. A U.S. pope would carry too much political baggage from the superpower, and would never be accepted by the rest of the world, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican."
"If someone from the U.S. was elected, people in the Third World would feel that the CIA fixed the election or that Wall Street bought it."
In Search of a Lesser World Figure
While the Catholic Church's profile around the world has grown, there is some dispute over whether or not John Paul's successor will play as large a role.
Many of the cardinals, in fact, would prefer a pope with a bit less energy than John Paul had. The reign of John Paul II has been the seventh-longest in the history of the papacy, and Vatican watchers say the cardinals may look for a shorter-lived pontificate this time.
An older pope might provide the Vatican with a breather, a time to consolidate John Paul II's advances and assimilate the changes of the past 30 years, said Notre Dame's McBrien.
"The question will be whether you want an interim pope who will provide a period of time to assimilate the initiatives of this pontificate, or whether you would want someone with the strong leadership and super-high profile of a John Paul II," said Newhouse.
The cardinals are expected to look for a man in his early 70s, said Reese -- but they'll also be careful not to repeat the experience of John Paul I, who, at age 66, died after 34 days on the papal throne.
Quick Selection Process
If there's one thing Vatican watchers hope for, though, it's for a short conclave.
Since 1831, no conclave has lasted more than four days.
"What kind of credibility would a pope have if it took a week and a half to elect him? What the heck would have happened to the Holy Spirit?" said McBrien.
It may be a tough decision, though. The next pope will be working in the wake of one of the most memorable, well-traveled, well-spoken, prominent church leaders in history.