When a Polish Cardinal was chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church 26 years ago, he was a surprise selection, for 455 years the pontiff had been Italian. Now, Catholic Cardinals are considering a successor, who could come from Africa, Asia or Latin America.
There are 1.1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide. Most of them live in the developing world.
Catholicism is growing in Africa more than any other part of the world. By church estimates, the number of Catholics in Africa has nearly doubled over the last twenty years, from 50 to 90 million.
Almost half of the world's Catholic population lives in Latin America. Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes says, "Brazil is the most populous Catholic country, Latin America is a very important Catholic continent."
And Asia is also witnessing a Catholic population explosion. Catholic scholar Monsignor William Kerr says all this has led to speculation that when the Cardinals convene to choose the next Pope they may do something extraordinary. "Will it be somebody from the third world where Catholicism is growing immensely?"
A Pope from the developing world could give Catholicism a strong foothold in an area where it is facing stiff competition from other religions. It also could give a voice to some of the world's poorest people. Monsignor Kerr says, "In Africa and Asia catholic populations are growing by leaps bounds and you have a lot of representation in the College of Cardinals from the third world."
Asia, Africa, and Latin America have 44 of the 117 cardinals that will choose Pope John Paul II successor. Thomas Reese is the editor of "America," a national catholic weekly magazine. "The real wild card here is Latin America. There's no one that really is standing out as a possible candidate from Latin America, but you don't know how things will develop as the days go by and they may coalesce around someone. If the Latin Americans were united behind someone it could be a very significant block of votes."
Americans seem to be divided over the preferred ethnicity of the next pope. The Associated Press released a poll recently indicating about one-in-three Americans want the next pope to be from a place where Catholicism is spreading rapidly, like Africa or Latin America.
But, an equal number say he should come from Europe, as tradition dictates. And there remains a powerful sentiment to elect an Italian Pope.
Cardinals under the age of 80 have the final say. Cardinal Hummes comment, "The geographical origin of the Pope is less important than his qualities to confront the problems of the world and lead the church during these difficult times."
Monsignor Kerr adds, “It's got be somebody who can deal with all the world and all the cultures. So, it would have to be somebody that has lived in Rome, worked in Rome, traveled the world, knows the world, knows the church and world."
There has never been a Pontiff from Latin America or Asia, and the last time an African was head of the church was more than 1,500 years ago.
But, then again, nobody would have imagined that a Polish Bishop from Krakow could have been chosen to lead the Catholic Church.