Editor's note: This article originally ran in 2003, when Pope John Paul II was experiencing a serious enough illness to make people begin to speculate about who might be his successor. This article has been slightly modified and updated.
So, who will the next pope be—a black, a Hispanic, an American, or a Jew?
No, it's not a joke. All four are real possibilities.
The biggest differences between the papal selection process now and the last time are demographic ones. Of the five countries with the biggest Catholic populations, only one (Italy) is European. Forty-six percent of the world's Catholics are in Latin America; there are more Catholics in the Philippines than in Italy. In 1955 there were 16 million Catholics in all of Africa; today there are 120 million.
The cardinals who will be electing the next pope are a conservative group. All but five of the 117 * voting cardinals (aka "cardinal electors") were appointed by Pope John Paul II, and most share his views. So, we probably won't see a flaming lefty as the next pontiff. Likely factors the cardinals will consider when voting: Do they pick a Third Worlder to reflect demographics or someone to shore up Old Europe Christendom? Do they want a young (well, under 70), telegenic man to explain Catholicism to the world? Or an older fellow who won't stick around for quite so long?
John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, cites an old Italian saying, "Always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope." But if there's a backlash, many analysts believe it will likely be against this pope's penchant for centralizing authority, not against his ideology.
The most frequently mentioned papabili among the pope-watching cognoscenti are:
Assets: Black! Third Worlder. Can go nose-to-nose with Islam.
Liabilities: Black? Maybe too conservative. African Catholic Church too young.
If chosen, Arinze, besides rocking the world as the first black pope, would also be a good pope to have in charge in a time of religious conflict. The former head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Arinze is Mr. Interfaith and helped arrange Pope John Paul II's first-ever visit to a mosque. "Theologically, all people come from the same God," he has said.
Deborah Caldwell, senior religion editor of Beliefnet, says of the electors, "They have to go with a Third World cardinal because of the shift of Christianity's vast numbers to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They just HAVE to," she says. "And if you add in the global clash between Islam and Christianity, the clear choice is Arinze."