Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri (right) seen here with Pope Benedict in 2007, now heads the Vatican department for Eastern Churches, and is considered a leading candidate to replace Benedict.
Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri (right) seen here with Pope Benedict in 2007, now heads the Vatican department for Eastern Churches, and is considered a leading candidate to replace Benedict.

PARIS - With Pope Benedict's stunning announcement that he will resign later this month, the time may be coming for the Roman Catholic Church to elect its first non-European leader and it could be a Latin American.

The region already represents 42 percent of the world's 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared to 25 percent in its European heartland.

After Pope John Paul and German-born Benedict, the post once reserved for Italians is now open to all.

Pope Frontrunners for Now

Who gets the nod depends on the profile of the new pope that the cardinals who electhim at the next conclave think will guide the Church best.

Two senior Vatican officials recently dropped surprisingly clear hints about possible successors.

The upshot of their remarks is that the next pope could well be from Latin America.

"I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,'' said Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who now holds the pope's old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"The universal Church teaches that Christianity isn't centred on Europe,'' the German-born archbishop told Duesseldorf's Rheinische Post newspaper just before Christmas.

Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, told the Tagesanzeiger daily in Zurich at the same time that the Church's future was not in Europe.

"It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave,'' he said, referring to the closed-door election in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

Asked if he would vote for a non-European over a European candidate if they were equally qualified, he responded, "Yes.''

If the next conclave really is Latin America's turn, the leading candidates there seem to be Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the huge diocese of Sao Paolo, or the Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri, now heading the Vatican department for Eastern Churches.

Peter Turkson from Ghana, now head of the Vatican's justice and peace department, is often tipped as Africa's frontrunner.

About half the cardinals who can vote are from Europe, even though only a quarter of the world's Catholics live there.

If the conclave tilts to the Old Continent, Vatican watchers say Angelo Scola of Milan is in pole position.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a former student and close ally of Benedict, is also considered a strong candidate.