VATICAN CITY: After Pope Benedict's papacy of almost eight years, the cardinals who will elect the next Catholic pontiff are more European, more conservative and more "Roman" than the conclave that chose him in 2005.
Benedict has hand picked more than half the men who will elect his successor. The rest were chosen by the late Pope John Paul, a Pole with whom the German pope shared a determination to reassert a more orthodox Catholicism in the new millennium.
Those two popes made sure any man awarded a cardinal's red hat was firmly in line with key Catholic doctrine supporting priestly celibacy and Vatican authority and opposing abortion, women priests, gay marriage and other liberal reforms.
Benedict has also stiffened the Church's missionary spirit by creating a Vatican department for what is called the New Evangelisation, a drive to spread the faith more vigorously.
With a conservative doctrine assured, cardinals and officials of the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, told Reuters the focus now revolves around other issues such as a candidate's age, nationality and the qualities he can bring to the office.
"The main issue is whether we want a longer papacy or not," said Cardinal Kurt Koch, 62, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity and relations with Jews. As for the man himself, he said, "I can imagine a Latin American or African pope."
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, said the new pope must first of all be able to communicate the Church's message, especially to the young.
"You don't necessarily need a rock star, but you need someone who can talk to young people," said McCarrick, 82, who has passed the age ceiling of 80 and cannot vote this time.
"But he must be able to keep the shop at home working and moving along and that's not easy," he added, referring to the need for better management of the 22, often disorganised Curia departments which run the 1.2 billion member Church.
There is no front-runner among potential candidates, making this a much more open race than the last closed-door conclave dominated by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became pope.
The 85-year-old Benedict, the first pope to retire in 700 years, will step down on Feb. 28. The 117 cardinals eligible to elect his successor, and from whose number the new pope will come, will enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave, expected to start by mid-March and last several days.
The age ceiling and maximum number of 120 electors for a conclave means popes can name new cardinals as older ones pass their 80th birthday. Benedict has named 67 of the electors this time, or 57.3 percent of the elite group.
That is close to the two-thirds majority needed to elect the next pope.
"It's quite extraordinary that he's been able to create this majority in eight years," said Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet.
Apart from being more conservative than their predecessors in the decades after the reforming 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, he said, there was no clear identikit for these men.
Some are charismatic preachers, such as Manila's 55-year-old Cardinal Luis Tagle, while others like New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, have taken an active role in debating moral issues in public. Others are more retiring or scholarly.
One senior cardinal, who asked not to be named, said many of Benedict's appointments as cardinals and bishops were more conservative than the faithful they were named to lead.
"I'm scared about it because we'll lose our people if we go too far to the right," he said. "If we sound more like conservative politicians than Christian leaders, that's bad for the Church."
U.S. Catholics, for instance, have been divided over the stand taken by Dolan against parts of President Barack Obama's health care reform concerning contraceptive cover for women, while some Belgian bishops have distanced themselves from Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard's conservative views.
ITALIANS AND THE OTHERS
Of the 117 electors, a slim majority of 61 are from Europe, compared to 58 in 2005. Italy, the largest national group, will have 28 this time, up from 20 in 2005.
Only nine of those are archbishops in Italian cities. The rest are officials in the Italian-dominated Curia, whose group has grown to 39 electors in the conclave, 11 more than in 2005.
The Curia often forms a generally cautious and centralised "Roman" faction that can include foreign prelates working there.
Curia cardinals from developing countries often become "Roman" over the years and see the world more from the Vatican viewpoint than that of their far-away homelands where local concerns can figure higher.
The predominance of Italians and Curia officials named cardinal early last year led to criticism that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict's deputy, was trying to pack the College of Cardinals with his countrymen and fellow Vatican officials.
"The Church is almost half Latin American, but no sitting bishop from there was named," the senior cardinal said, referring to followers of the Roman Catholic Church. "Some felt it was a conspiracy not to elect a Latin American pope."
Bertone, 78, has denounced reports of Vatican intrigues as "an attempt to sow division that comes from the Devil" and accused journalists who write about them of trying to imitate Dan Brown, author of the best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code."
At his penultimate Sunday address at the weekend, Benedict thanked the crowed in several languages but made the only specific reference to his upcoming resignation in Spanish.
CHANCES FOR NON-EUROPEANS
While 42 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, the region has only 19 electors, up from 18 in 2005. Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, has five times as many faithful as Germany, but one less elector.
Africa has gone down by one elector to 11 while Asia has stayed at 11. Oceania -- Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands -- has one elector compared to two last time.
Working in Rome can be an advantage, but is not always.
Ghana's Peter Turkson, 64, the genial head of the Vatican department for peace and justice, represents Africa to cardinals who want a non-European pope while his Roman experience reassures those worried about a pontiff from overseas.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, is a classic "Roman." Born and raised in Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants has spent his adult life in the Curia or Vatican diplomatic service, making him well connected there but little known to cardinals outside.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, a kind of staff manager as head of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, has a dry image but is "tri-continental". An intellectual Canadian theologian working in Rome, he has long experience in Latin America.
Cardinals will be watching Benedict between now and his resignation for any hints he might drop about a successor.
His decision to resign because of his failing health clearly points to the need for a relatively younger man, probably in his 60s. Benedict was 78 when he was elected.
The pope has said nothing about Church teachings but his decision to stay in a renovated convent not far from his old papal apartment might weigh on cardinals casting their ballots under Michelangelo's imposing painting of The Last Judgment.
"Just by being alive, he can influence the succession so that it continues along this path," Mickens said. "Would the cardinals Benedict created feel free enough to appoint someone who would change the direction of the Church? I don't think so."
Benedict's papacy was rocked by revelations that priests had sexually abused children in Europe and the United States, mostly before his time in office. The Vatican has apologised for abuse in the Church and put new rules in place to prevent it but said the leadership cannot be held responsible for individual acts.
No Church leaders have suggested changing this approach or for the ban on women priests to be lifted, but some in Europe have proposed greater acceptance of homosexuals and a review of the ban on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Some bishops have also backed the idea of ordaining older married men to help deal with a shortage of priests. These suggestions fell on deaf ears during Benedict's papacy.
One senior Curia official, who asked not to be named, said speculation about any cardinal's chances because of his age or passport overlooked a key element in a papal election.
"Don't forget the catholicity, the universality, of the Catholic Church," he said. "The cardinals will be thinking about the best man for the job, not necessarily finding a geographical balance or someone different from the last pope."
"There is a lot of continuity in the Church," he said, before adding: "But you can never predict what happens at a conclave."