What does the next conclave hold in store?
Will the Pope's successor inevitably be European?
Pope Benedict XVI will turn 86 on April 16, becoming the third oldest pope in the last 600 years.
As might be expected, discussions are rife about who among the so-called “papabile” might succeed him.
Pope Clement XII (1730-40) died at 87, while Pope Leo XIII (1875-1903) lived to be 93 – though early records of the ages of previous popes do tend to be a little unreliable.
Pope Benedict’s general health appears to be good but he has begun to show signs of fatigue and frailty. And there seems to be some evidence that he might himself be preparing for a successor.
Last year he appointed 27 new cardinals, bringing the College of Cardinals to its maximum membership of 120.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II amended the voting rules to allow for a simple majority vote after a few weeks of a stalemate. Previously, voting would have continued until a candidate received a two-thirds plus one majority.
It is said that then Cardinal Ratzinger reached a simple majority early on in the balloting that ultimately made him pope and that a number of cardinals chose to add their support to avoid a protracted conclave.
This is not likely to happen in the next conclave. Shortly after his election, Pope Benedict changed the rules back to the traditional system. So his successor is likely to be someone with broad support rather than one coming from a partisan faction.
Some have speculated that the Vatileaks scandal was a backlash against the perceived autocratic and archconservative Italian, Cardinal Bertone, and a way of positioning a conservative candidate as the next pope.
The next conclave will include a significant group of cardinals with long experience working in the Roman Curia. The next pope will need their backing.
Additionally, half or more of the Curia are Europeans, and a larger majority will have studied in Rome or elsewhere in Europe. So the next pope – even if he is not European – will likely be heavily ‘Europeanized’.
Moreover, any serious contender for the position of Bishop of Rome would need to have a decent command of the Italian language.
Given the large number of Italians heading Vatican offices and the numerous Italian archdioceses traditionally led by cardinals, the Italians would have a numerically powerful bloc of votes at the next conclave.
In fact, even after the latest appointment of six new cardinals, the Italians still have 28 voters, 20 of whom were created cardinals by Pope Benedict. The average age of the cardinal-electors is just over 72.
Among the two Italian front runners are Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, who among other things, criticizes priests for their "boring" and "irrelevant" sermons. He blogs, jokes and encourages them to use Twitter.
A former professor and archaeological scholar, Ravasi was in 2007 appointed as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He shows a genuine eagerness for the Church to re-engage with contemporary art in a meaningful way.
Ravisi has said he wants to initiate a "dialogue," not didactics and disapproval, not preaching and polemics, but a reciprocal conversation based on mutual respect. He is so popular that there is currently a two-year waiting list to get him confirmed as a conference speaker.
The other Italian front runner is Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, Archbishop of Milan, whose archbishopric has produced many saints including St Ambrose in the 4th century and popes such as Paul VI (1963-78).
Scola is considered close to Pope Benedict. One of his major accomplishments has been bringing Muslim and Christian scholars together to brainstorm on the future of the Mediterranean world.
The percentage of European electors is just over 51 percent. The figure contrasts sharply with the fact that, according to Vatican statistics, less than 24 percent of the world's Catholics live in Europe.
Among the non-Italian Europeans, Dominican Cardinal Christoph Schönborn , 67, of Vienna, is probably the strongest candidate. When he became a young cardinal in 1998, he was considered one of the brightest among the conservatives in the college. Some believe he would break new ground if given the opportunity.
In every synod, the key figure is the relator, or general secretary, who organizes the work, supervises preparation of all the documents, and delivers two key reports before and after the synod deliberations. The last two popes in a row first came to prominence as a synod relator.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland held the job for the 1974 synod on evangelization, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany did so for the 1980 synod on the family.
At the October 2012 synod on the new evangelization, the relator was Donald Cardinal Wuerl, 72, Archbishop of Washington since 2006. He previously served as Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle (1986–87) and Bishop of Pittsburgh (1988–2006). He was created a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2010, Wuerl published a pastoral letter on the new evangelization, which left a very positive impression on Pope Benedict. Might he be the favored North American front runner?
Or would it be French Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet who spent 10 years in Colombia and then nine back in Canada before going to Rome in 1997 to teach at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family? He has headed the Congregation for Bishops in the Vatican since June 2010.
Latin America has two strong candidates. One is Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 64, of São Paulo, whose appeal stretches beyond geographical considerations. Not only has he headed the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic country since 2007, but also has sterling Roman credentials.
German-Brazilian, he obtained a licentiate and doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University and later spent several years working at the Congregation for Bishops (1994-2001).
Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 70, of Tegucigalpa, has been described as a Latin American John Paul II because of his charismatic personality, linguistic abilities and his work in promoting the Church’s social teaching.
The native Honduran, who is currently president of Caritas Internationalis, was "Italianized" early on by his Salesian formation in Rome and Turin. He was created cardinal in 2001. But he tarnished his reputation by initially backing the 2009 military coup in Honduras.
African Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is the front runner among the African nations. Born in Ghana of a Catholic father and a mother who converted from Methodism, he is one of the few Africans to have undertaken doctoral studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
He was named Archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992 and cardinal in 2003.
Turkson seemingly diminished his chances by playing an anti-Muslim video during the evangelization synod, a presentation criticized by bishops from several parts of the word for being alarmist and inaccurate.
Lesser known but still possible candidates from Africa include Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, a longtime voice of African Catholicism, and Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, president of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum."
The Asian electors constitute 9 percent. Catholics in Asia account for just over 10 percent of the worldwide Catholic population. The only Asian even considered as papable is the recently consecrated Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, 55.
As the old saying goes, “The one who goes in as pope comes out as cardinal,” meaning the favorite does not always win. The Holy Spirit may well spring a surprise candidate as pope in the next conclave.
Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.
Cultural center keeps alive traditional arts and culture of tribal people in Odisha state
Female politicians travel to former warzone to meet women but only spoke to a tiny fraction of the turnout
Thousands throng streets of Philippine capital to protest government's handling of housing policy
Sister Rani Maria Vattalil died of multiple knife wounds for helping the poor
Hoa Hao Buddhists go on hunger strike to protest police harassment