As the 27 year reign of Pope John Paul II comes to an end, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana addresses some of the issues that are facing the Catholic Church at this juncture.
Pope John Paul was the third longest-serving pope in history. His background put John Paul II in a good position to serve the burgeoning Catholic population in Eastern Europe. The pope was born in Poland and appointed to his position in 1978, at a time when communism dominated the region. Today, Catholicism enjoys a revival in many of the countries where religion was outlawed throughout most of the Pontiff's life.
But meeting the needs of Eastern European Catholics is just one of many challenges the next pope will face - whenever he is elected. The Church has seen its greatest growth in recent years in Asia, Africa, and Latin America - areas of the world that tend not to share a Western European outlook on religion and society. Parts of these regions are also beset by poverty and violence.
University of Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham estimates that 65% of all Catholics now live outside the so-called "First World." He emphasizes that serving these Catholics is going to require a Pontiff with a global perspective.
"It would certainly bode well for a future pope if he were a polyglot, if he could speak more than one language," Professor Cunningham says, "[if] he had traveled extensively in other parts of the world [and was] sympathetic to the need to articulate the faith in a language and a theology that would be appropriate for people who don't necessarily come out of a Western European background."
Some of the regions where Catholicism is growing most rapidly have also seen an increase in the number of converts to Islam - which, like Christianity, is a missionary faith. Lawrence Cunningham says the next pope will have to be mindful of the conflicts that have broken out in parts of Africa where both religions have been evangelizing heavily.
But Professor Cunningham also says the person who succeeds John Paul II will have to deal with the reality that Africa is not the only place where Islam is on the rise. "What happens," he asks, "when you have a traditionally Catholic country like Italy, where the birthrate among Muslims is five times greater than the birthrate among Catholics? What's that going to mean in 25 years? What's it going to mean to historic institutions in a country like Italy? What I'm talking about is awareness of that fact."
Lawrence Cunningham cites interfaith dialogue as a fundamental part of the legacy of John Paul II. The Notre Dame professor says, for example, that the Pontiff did more than any pope before him to reconcile Christianity with Judaism. Looking to the future, he says the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will have to continue along the same path, and extend the conversation to other faiths.
Professor Cunningham also advocates giving local bishops a greater voice in the management of their own dioceses - something he says John Paul II did not always allow them to have. Church leaders called for a more local approach to the faith 40 years ago during the Second Vatican Council. But Lawrence Cunningham says that goal has not been met.
"Let me just give you one not so trivial example," he says. "Decisions about the English language liturgy, now that we have a vernacular liturgy, those things are increasingly centralized in Rome. Now, why do we want to have people in Rome discussing issues of liturgical language there, rather than in the local environment, with native-speakers and so on?"
When the College of Cardinals does meet to elect the next pope, the person who is chosen will, in all likelihood, be a Cardinal himself. The last time the Cardinals elected someone who was not from among their ranks was in 1378, when the Archbishop of Bari became Pope Urban VI.
While most of today's Cardinals are Italian, Americans make up the second greatest group. But it does not necessarily follow that an American could be in the running to be the next pope.
"Not as long as we're the big kid in the world playground," says Lawrence Cunningham. He senses a feeling among Catholic leaders that America's influence in the world is already strong enough and that one of its countrymen should not lead the Church, as well.