Pope Benedict XVI will call it quits at the end of this month, clearing the way for an election of a new pope. The Vatican's best guess as to when that'll happen is sometime before Easter, which falls on March 31 this year. In the meantime, expect plenty of speculation (of both the informed and uninformed varities) to come pouring in about who Benedict's successor will be.
So who are among the early favorites? The cardinals being name-dropped the most in early reports on Benedict's resignation include: Marc Ouellet of Canada, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Peter Turkson of Ghana, Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, and Angelo Scola of Italy. The thing that jumps out the most from that list is that only Scola and Schoenborn hail from Europe, suggesting that the church may soon have its first non-European Holy Father in more than a thousand years. (For what it's worth, Ouellet, Arinze, and Turkson currently make up many bookies' top three.)
So how likely is it that we'll see a non-European pope this year? Well, there are some pretty obvious reasons to be skeptical.
Pope Benedict XVI has chosen over one-half of the cardinals eligible to elect his successor. Even though about 40 percent of Catholics worldwide live in Latin America, and over a quarter are in the Asia-Pacific region and sub-Saharan Africa, the Cardinals are overwhelmingly European and conservative, much like Benedict himself. So despite the changing nature of the Catholic population at large, the group of men who will actually pick the next pope might be inclined to stick with the status quo.
Still, as Reuters notes, that doesn't necessarily preclude cardinals from outside the continent and, in fact, there have been a few suggestions that perhaps the church is ready to look elsewhere. Two recent remarks from senior officials at the Vatican have indicated that the next pope could be from Latin America or Africa, which would make sense given their plurality in the world Catholic population.
Archbishop Gerhard Mueller has said publicly that he "know[s] a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church," while Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch told a Zurich paper that it "would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave," adding that he'd pick a non-European over a European candidate if the two were equally qualified.
For what it's worth, Ouellet, currently the head of the Congregation for Bishops, might not be too keen on taking the papacy anyway. In June 2011, he called the top job of the Catholic Church a "nightmare" position for him. Still, as the New York Times reminds us, that might not matter anyway: "Vatican lore has it that cardinals seen as front-runners in advance of the vote rarely triumph."