VATICAN CITY--As Pope John Paul II continues his 11-day tour of the Americas to Guatemala and Mexico this week, some Vatican observers suggest that his third trip to the region in less than a decade is one indication the next pope may be drawn from that part of the world.
Latin America is home to half the world's Catholics and several strong papal candidates, including cardinals from Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, and Cuba. "The church is growing most in the Third World," notes Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. "To have a pope who is sensitive to the people and issues that make up the demographic future of Catholicism would be very important."
The pope arrives in Guatemala City Monday where he will canonize a 17th century apostle, creating Central America's first saint. Some 700,000 pilgrims are expected to attend the ceremony. Massive crowds are also expected for ceremonies in Mexico later in the week.
The Vatican recently signaled that Pope John Paul II will not retire from his office. But that hasn't stopped growing discussion in Rome and beyond about the future direction of the church, which will depend in large part on the policies of the next pope. Among the topics of debate: Will the successor uphold his conservative line, or take a more liberal approach on a wide range of issues?
As the Catholic Church sex scandals have unfolded, many Catholics in the US are publicly questioning not only how the church is administered, but also a wide range of church policies, from the celibacy of priests to bans on contraception and divorce.
After John Paul II's passing, a group of approximately 120 cardinals will vote in a series of secretive ballots held in the Sistine Chapel. But Vatican experts both here and in the US expect the next pontiff will be a moderate conservative and, quite possibly, the first from the developing world.
"The next pope will likely hold the same positions on the substantive issues as John Paul II does," says Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit Weekly, America in New York.
To become pope, a candidate must win a two-thirds majority of the votes of the cardinal electors, a gathering of all cardinals under the age of 80. Usually it takes many rounds of balloting to produce a winner, a process that can take weeks, even months, but is now usually resolved in a few days.
Virtually all of the eligible cardinal electors have been appointed by Pope John Paul II over the course of his nearly quarter-century in power. Of the 122 eligible electors, he has appointed 117, leading some to assume the next pope will be very much like the current one.
"People assume that because he's named [more than] 90 percent of the electors, they will elect somebody like him," says Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "But that just doesn't happen in the history of papal elections. The new pope will not be a photocopy of John Paul II."
Most Vatican observers think that after a long, dramatic, and occasionally divisive papacy, the cardinals will be looking for a unifying figure, a theological conservative with a less hard-line approach than John Paul II, who has cracked down on dissenting views within the church.
"The next pope is not going to ordain women, is not going to change the church's teaching on homosexuality, is not going to allow homosexual unions, or let Catholics start using birth control," says John L. Allen Jr., author and Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter. "But I think there will be less of a rush to push people out of the church who say these things."
Popes were once nearly always Italian, but the election of John Paul II (who is Polish) shattered a 450-year tradition. Since 1978, the College of Cardinals has grown increasingly international, reflecting the growth of Catholicism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
"The church is rapidly approaching a point where you can say it's a non-European church," says John Paul Wauck, a professor at the Sante Croce Pontifical University in Rome. "The next pope, regardless of his nationality, will by necessity be a non-European pope."
While many observers look to Latin America as the source of the next pontiff, others look to Africa, where Catholicism is growing most rapidly. But Africa is seen as a long shot because of the lack of established church tradition there in comparison to Latin America or Europe.