As details emerge about what Pope Benedict XVI plans for his imminent retirement - he'll be called "pope emeritus," live in the Vatican next door to the radio station, keep his white papal cassock but swap his signature red shoes for brown loafers, according to the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi — a bigger issue is swirling: who will be his successor?
Or as Sandro Magister, the commentator and author of political histories of the church, wrote on his blog, www.chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it, "Who Will Take Up the Keys of Peter?"
The pope's last day at work, officially, is Thursday, Feb. 28. In the middle of March, 117 cardinals will gather in Rome to select a new leader, Mr. Magister wrote. They've done it many times before.
"But this time it will be completely different," Mr. Magister wrote. The pope's resignation took the cardinals by surprise, coming "like a thief in the night." There hasn't been time for the discussions beforehand that would allow them "to arrive at the conclave with sufficiently vetted options already in place" about a suitable successor, he wrote.
In papal terms, it's a roller-coaster ride. So who are the main candidates?
Lists vary, but Mr. Magister, a respected commentator, offers an interesting one: three Italians, three North Americans, and Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, capital of the Philippines, Asia's only majority-Catholic nation. He was elevated to cardinal last year in Rome.
In his mid-50s, Cardinal Tagle is popular at home, according to reports in the Philippine media. He's considered humble, coming from a working-class family outside Manila, and is truly interested in charitable work. As the Inquirer.net wrote in a headline: "Philippine papal bet wants people power for Church." In the article, one of Cardinal Tagle's mentors, Father Rome Ner, was quoted as saying he possesses "remarkable empathy, as well as discipline and intellect."
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But is the archbishop of Manila a true "papabili," or papal candidate?
The six candidates from Italy and North America (who include Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy and the Canadian Marc Ouellet, a former archbishop of Quebec who is now a prefect in the Vatican congregation), are strong, noted Mr. Magister, with that core still holding "the theological and cultural leadership over the whole Church," despite the fact that today, the church is probably more enthusiastically viewed and joined in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia than in Europe or North America.
Still, "nothing prevents the next conclave from deciding to abandon the old world and open up to the other continents," he wrote.
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If "there do not seem to emerge prominent personalities capable of attracting votes" from Latin America and Africa, "the same is not true of Asia," he wrote, calling Cardinal Tagle "young and cultured" with "a balance of vision and doctrinal correctness" that is reportedly appreciated by the outgoing pope.
"Especially striking is the style with which the bishop acts, living simply and mingling among the humblest people, with a great passion for mission and for charity," he wrote.
But at just 56, he's perhaps too young for the job, Mr. Magister wrote. (Others say the Cardinal is 55.)
Still, with the church shocked at Benedict XVI's departure on health grounds, Cardinal Tagle's age could help him, too.