NAIROBI, Kenya - After Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope in hundreds of years to voluntarily resign, the Roman Catholic Church could be in for another first in recent history-an African pope.
Two African cardinals are rumored to be among the top candidates to succeed Pope Benedict, and many Vatican watchers believe the election of a non-European pope is a very real possibility at a time when the majority of the church's growth is in the developing world.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, of Ghana, is considered to be near the top of the short list of likely successors. (British bookmakers offering odds on the next pope have already made Turkson their 3 to 1 favorite.)
After serving for more than 30 years as an ordained priest, Turkson was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He currently serves as president of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace. Colleagues describe him as a "people person" with excellent communication skills. He is considered a conservative who is unlikely to steer the church in a new direction on issues such as contraception, abortion and gay rights.
Turkson outlined for ABC News Monday the challenge facing Benedict's successor.
"The new pope has to be very sensitive to the present condition of humanity and yet recognize the task of having to still keep the Gospel in its pure form. That's a big challenge that we all pray for," he said.
"I think what we should be looking for, probably what we should be doing rather is recognizing the nature of the church… pray God will provide us with the leadership that can confidently lead the humanity in the church in the year ahead. The challenges are not going to cease. They're going to be increasing and we need somebody with God's guidance to get us through all this," Turkson said.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, 80, of Nigeria is again being mentioned as a possible pope, as he was in 2005 when Pope Benedict was elected. Arinze served as a priest for 27 years and became one of the world's youngest bishops before Pope John Paul II elevated him to cardinal in 1985.
He was appointed to lead the Vatican's Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and colleagues compliment his ability to cooperate with people of other faiths. Arinze is also considered a conservative.
Some in the Vatican discount Arinze's chances saying he is too old and too frail.
If the conclave of the College of Cardinals were to choose either Turkson or Arinze, it would be the first selection of an African pope in more than 1,500 years. Scholars say in the first five centuries of the church there were three popes from North Africa. But the selection of Turkson or Arinze would be the first pope from sub-Saharan Africa and the first-ever black pope.
Vatican watchers also believe it is possible a Latin American pope could be selected. The cardinals considered leading candidates from Latin America are said to be Leonardo Sandri from Argentina, Oscar Maradiaga from Honduras, Odilo Scherer from Brazil, and Joao Braz de Aviz from Brazil.