ROME, Feb 28, 2013 -- As Pope Benedict XVI flew off from Vatican City today to start a secluded life at the papal retreat outside Rome, the world's attention turns to who will replace him at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church.
Benedict's successor will be determined at a conclave at the Vatican next month, with the date yet to be determined. In one of his last acts as pontiff, Benedict issued a decree allowing cardinals to convene the conclave before March 15, the date that would have been required under the old rules.
For many of the faithful, that decision has been a welcome one -- the sooner a new pope is installed, the less time their church will be leaderless.
"There's a feeling of emptiness," Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Thursday on "Good Morning America."
"There's a somber tone. We love our pope. He's our holy father. There's not only the chair vacant, but there's a vacancy in our hearts."
Dolan is viewed as one of the top contenders to succeed Benedict and one of his colleagues, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, today had nothing but praise for him.
"I think we'll have to let the Holy Father decide that, but you can see that he has many virtues, many gifts," Rigali told Stephanopoulos.
Dolan laughed off the speculation as "incredible." If history is any guide, Dolan would be an unlikely pick. There has never been a pope who did not hail from Europe. But as Rigali noted, conclave is "a very dynamic process" that can prove unpredictable.
"We ask God's help, we listen, and we know that whoever is chosen has to be the choice of two thirds of the cardinals, so it is an experience of learning as we go in," Rigali said. "Certainly someone may begin with one candidate and end up with another."
Eight years ago, Benedict, dean of the College of Cardinals at the time, was viewed as a strong front-runner entering conclave. But this time around, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa said there "doesn't seem to be that type of favorite."
In an interview with ABCNews.com, Napier said he hopes the next pope comes from a more under-developed part of the world. Most Catholics, in fact, reside in the southern hemisphere.
"I've got a few people that I've earmarked and they're from all over the globe," he said. "One of the qualities I'd be looking for is someone who comes from a part of the church where there's vibrancy, there's life, where faith is something living and important and people see it as not just something you tag along with, but something that has meaning in life. I think that Asia, Africa and Latin America have got such qualities, but there are pockets in Europe and America where similar things are happening."
"There's a nice crop of younger cardinals who I think have got really good leadership qualities and I believe the choice this time around is going to be a lot more widespread than it was last time," he added.
Some of the names garnering buzz in Rome these days as possibilities to become the next pope – known as "papabili" – include Cardinals Angelo Scola, Angelo Bagnasco, and Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Dolan.
There is an old saying in Rome that he who enters conclave as a pope exits as a cardinal. For the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the choice that will be made in the Sistine Chapel next month could not be any more important – it may determine the future of their faith for the coming decades. Until white smoke shoots out over St. Peter's Square, the world will be watching.