Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful to deliver his "Urbi et Orbi" message as he appears from the velvet-draped central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 25, 2007. / Alessandra Tarantino, AP
If you want to picture the next pope, look back, look ahead and brace for surprises.
The cardinals who will elect the new pontiff were all chosen by the past two and tasked with finding a pope who can speak to the future.
And no one can tell for sure if the man they pick will be the pope they get.
When up to 118 electors - all the cardinals under age 80 - are locked in to the Sistine Chapel, they may pray the Holy Spirit guides them to a man who brings an eternal, orthodox vision of the faith. Just like globe-trotting rock star Pope John Paul II. Just like scholarly theologian Pope Benedict XVI.
The electors may pray for someone who can revitalize the Catholic vision of truth and culture that's fading in the Christian west and face the challenge of Islam, which surpassed Catholicism as the world's largest denomination years ago.
And they may pray as well that he can bring order to the curia, the cumbersome bureaucracy that governs the global church. It would take a talented administrator, and one who can avoid the public relations gaffes that marred Benedict's papacy.
But most of all, they'll pray for someone with two essential qualities, says John Allen, the longtime Vatican expert at the National Catholic Reporter.
"They need the mind of Benedict and the heart of John XXIII (the 1960s pope who called the modernizing Second Vatican Council) - ferocious intellectual firepower and the ability to bring the message to the most simple listener."
Technically, the next pope could be any unmarried Christian man. Church law permits this.
Realistically, say expert Vatican watchers, the electors' choice will be shaped by the candidates' résumés and character - with an inevitable whiff of geo-politics - as they weigh the papabile, the term for those with the "right stuff" to be pope.
There is, however, no contest in the College of Cardinals between liberals and conservatives. "There are no liberals left," says Allen.
There's no cardinal who might redirect the church's stance on the celibate priesthood, ordain women or reconsider a ban on artificial birth control.
The question is which current will sweep in the new pope: The evangelical stream focused on "affirmative orthodoxy - what the church says 'Yes' to, not what it says 'No' to" - or the culture warriors who see a hostile, secular world with which the church must do battle," says Allen.
Political scientist and Jesuit priest Thomas Reese, author of several books on the Vatican, expects, "We'll see a change in style, not in substance.
"The next pope has to figure out how to preach the gospel in a language understandable in the 21st century," says Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
First off, experts agree, forget a U.S. pope but still think American - North American. The first pope from the Western Hemisphere could be a Canadian.
"The USA is too powerful and controversial in the world. No one wants the superpower to have the power of the papacy, too," says commentator David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict and The Coming Catholic Church.
However, Gibson and many other experts have Marc Ouellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec, on their short lists of papabile. Considered smart, pastoral and well-connected, Ouellet now holds a key spot in Rome as head of the Congregation of Bishops, says Gibson.
They may look to Italians, eager to regain the papacy after more than three decades. Three top Italian papabile are Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, the largest Catholic diocese in Europe; Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop of Genoa and two-time president of the Italian bishops conference
All are called brilliant and orthodox in the mold of Benedict, and are well-known among their brother cardinals, a serious voting advantage.
Still, for the Italians, who hold 30 slots - about a quarter of the electors - to steer their pick to the papacy "it would require them to agree with each other even before they get someone else on board," says Reese.
Or the electors could shake things up with a long-shot New World or Third World candidate.
Gibson mentions cardinal names in play on the less-likely list:
Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson from Ghana, head of the Council for Justice and Peace and former Archbishop of the Cape Coast, would be "a fascinating, perhaps brilliant choice but his chances are slim to none."
Jorge Mario Bergolio, the 75-year-old Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was rumored to be the runner-up in the 2005 conclave. "But he's older now and he never really wanted it then."
Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine with an Italian heritage who now heads of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, was the chief of staff for John Paul II who announced his death. An able manager, he's considered a "safe hands" candidate.
Whoever they pick, he'll need a record on dealing with the global sexual-abuse crisis that can stand scrutiny. Revelations on this painful issue can derail or detract from a pope's agenda for the health and growth of the church.
While Benedict's supporters cite his efforts to remove abusive priests when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, critics thought it was too little, too late and too slow. Meeting victims, as Benedict and several other cardinals have done, is not enough, says Reese.
What people want to hear from their pope is what Benedict tried and did not exactly deliver in a letter to the Irish faithful who have been rocked by corrosive revelations of abuses in Catholic schools and institutions.
"People want to hear, 'We're sorry! We're sorry! It was a sin. It was a crime. We'll make sure it never happens again. We apologize for any screw-up by anyone who didn't handle this better,' " says Reese.
David Clohessy, an abuse victim who has devoted two decades to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), wants a pope who will toss out not only abusive priests but the bishops who harbored them, as well.
"The question will be, can he do what is needed to protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded?" Clohessy asks.
Clohessy has no papabile in mind. The only bishop riding tough enough for the job by his lights, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, is unpopular with Rome for his vocal stance on holding bishops accountable in the cascade of devastating reports of abuse in Ireland.
All that said, there's no sure way to know how a cardinal may be as pope.
When German-born Ratzinger - long known as "the enforcer" or by other, less civil, nicknames - was chosen, people expected "the Panzer pope." They didn't get that in Benedict.
The papacy is a role like no other. As Benedict, who spent half a century as a theologian, said a year after his election to shepherd to the Catholic world: "It was easy to know the doctrine. It's much harder to help a billion people live it."
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