By Eric Marrapodi and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
(CNN) – Hours after Pope Benedict XVI's resignation announcement Monday, speculation was surging over who might be his successor and what part of the world the new pontiff could be from.
The 118 cardinals who will pick the next pope are also in the running for the job. Those cardinals are from around the globe, but more than half of them hail from European nations, according to Vatican statistics.
Worldwide, the demographic trends among the Roman Catholic Church's nearly 1.2 billion members show a different breakdown, with the church seeing only a trickle of new members in Europe, while membership has grown significantly in Africa.
So this time around, could the pope be from Africa, where growth has surged significantly, or from Latin America, a longtime bastion for the church?
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"It's always one of those exciting things. I bet there will be a line in Vegas, there probably already is," said Randall Woodard, an associate professor of theology at Saint Leo University.
"Especially based on the growth of Catholicism and ... the geographic shifts that have taken place, a lot of smart money would be on Africa or Central America."
Some stressed that the pope's geographic background shouldn't be a factor.
"All of the questions about nationalities are nonsense," said Michael Sean Winters, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. "There are 118 men, and all of them have gotten to know one another. ... Their questions are going to be 'who can we see in that chair?'"
For many in Italy, the choice is already clear, according to John Allen, CNN's senior Vatican analyst.
"Around the dinner tables today in Rome, Cardinal Angelo Scola has the pole position," Allen said Monday.
Scola, an Italian, is the archbishop of Milan.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican's office of bishops, is also a likely frontrunner, said Allen. And Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, an Argentinian who works as the Vatican prefect overseeing eastern churches, is well-known for his leadership and administrative skills, Allen said.
'The face of Catholicism'
Another top contender for the papacy could be Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, said Woodard, the managing editor of the International Journal of African Catholicism. The 64-year-old cardinal currently heads the pope's council for justice and peace and has experience working with people of different faiths, Woodard said.
"He would be able to respond to global needs and ... the reality of what the face of Catholicism is," Woodard said.
In Brazil - which leads the world with more than 133 million Catholics, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life - many were buzzing about Benedict's resignation announcement Monday.
"The country has a tradition of Catholicism, and any news related to the pope is very important news in Brazil. ... There are those experts saying that maybe the time has come for a cardinal from the developing world, Africa or Latin America, to ascend to the papacy," said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Catholic faithful gathered at a religious celebration in Brazil's capital Monday said they were surprised by the news of Benedict's resignation and hopeful that Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz might be picked for the papacy, the state-run Agencia Brasil news agency reported.
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But choosing the next pope is an issue that must rise above geographic borders, said the Reverend Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest from Uganda's Kampala archdiocese who is an associate professor of theology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
"Part of the frustration for me is that there is a thinking that Africa's challenges and the opportunities and the interests can only be advanced if we have an African pope," Katongole said. "I find it extremely frustrating when in my vision, the church is a transnational communion of believers whose identity and loyalty cuts across these geopolitical boundaries."
Cardinals prepare to decide
While people outside the church may focus on nationalities and race, within the church's top ranks, cardinals have "a very global vision," Woodard said.
"The pope has to be the visible shepherd of 1 billion Catholics in the world," said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. "I don't think going into the conclave the pope has to be of a certain nationality."
Other factors are important, Paprocki said, like the age of the next pope.
"It's a grueling and demanding schedule to keep up with," he said.
Pope Benedict, who is 85 years old, said Monday that he will resign at the end of the month "because of advanced age."
"Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," the pope said, according to the Vatican.
Age is also a factor for cardinals. Once a cardinal reaches 80, he is no longer able to participate in the election of the pope or enter the secret conclave where cardinals gather to select the next pope.
Of the 118 cardinals of voting age, 28 are from Italy, 34 are from elsewhere in Europe, 19 are from Latin America, 14 are from the United States and Canada, 11 are from Asia, 11 are from Africa and 1 is from Australia.
Cardinals will meet to choose Benedict's successor sometime after his official resignation on February 28, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference.
"Before Easter, we will have the new pope," he said.
Benedict won't be involved in the decision, Lombardi said. But his influence will undoubtedly be felt. Benedict appointed 67 the 118 cardinals who will make the decision.
It's a choice that Cardinal Donald Wuerl said he doesn't take lightly.
"When we go into the conclave, what has to be upper in the minds of all of us is what is God asking of us in making a choice. Who will fill the chair of Peter? And I think that's going to be the only consideration," said Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. "Who among this body has the qualifications, the characteristics, the spiritual gifts to fill that chair?"
Wuerl told reporters that he was in his study at 5 a.m. Monday preparing a homily for Ash Wednesday when he found out about the pope's decision.
"This is very startling," he said. "I was totally unprepared for it."
Wuerl is a top American contender for the papacy, according to Allen. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, could also be considered, but both Americans would be on the "C or D list" of candidates, Allen said.
While only the church's inner circle will know what goes on inside the conclave, bookmakers were quick to set the odds over who will be the top contenders.
Two online betting sites listed Turkson as a favorite Monday. London-based William Hill plc and Dublin-based Paddy Power both gave him 3-1 odds.
CNN's Michael Pearson, Hada Messia and Kyle Almond contributed to this report.
Full Coverage: The pope resigns
They are not going to pick a black Pope. There is really no pressing reason for them to. Not to say that the Catholic church wouldn't benefit from having someone other then a white man to run it, but they aren't really going to do it. This would actually be news if the Vatican said that a Latino or African was in contention, but the truth is they aren't going to pick either one of those. Anyone reading this should be highly surprised if someone who is not European is chosen. I don't even think they are going to pick an American to be the Pope
Why does it matter who the pope is? Shouldn't the people that pick the pope have the power. Like the voters who pick the president. Oh wait........
Orange dresses with white lace? No wonder they have a pedophilia scandal!
There are rumors that this Pope converted recently to Islam. Haven't read it on Fox News yet, so it isn't verified as true, but apparently the source is quite respectable.
Doesn't bother me if true – people should follow their heart when choosing a religion. Yes, a different book, but the similarities are substantial ...
Oh yeah, that is just what Africa and Latin America need, the ArchBishop of MILAN!! How about France, or Spain or UK or......you get the hint..right? Don't expect much change after you stick with a tired age old recipe.
WALL STREET and the MAFIA Both Support Timothy Dolan
He could be ...but RACE should not be a reason for selecting someone...don't you think?
How about a woman pope for once? Oh, wait...
This is just an idea started by media. They are not that hard up. My comment seems to fit in with all of the other hateful comments here.
W T F? What is your point? The media? ??????
Follow the smell of money, and there is where you will find the Catholic Church. That is why males,wealthy people and politicians get marriage annulments at a vastly higher percentage than women, and poor people that can't up the money ante. What a hypocritical joke the Church has become.
When a marriage is annulled, both the husband and wife are partners in the annulment. So the same number of men and women receive annulments. It cannot be mathematically different.
The African parishioners and faithfuls have dedicated their lives and believe everything the church teaches for several centuries. They are yet to be represented in the popology hierarchy and it is about time.
What will be to the west's dismay is that you will discover how conservative the African Catholic faithfuls are. More so beyond your imagination as they were raised on the old Franciscan catholic tradition. Talk about controversy, it will blow your mind.
This conversation has been had for decades and it is time for an African descent pope.
The time is now for an African Pope.
Fine pick an African pope. He'll be as useful as Ti ts on a bull.
just like any other pope.
I just need a pope that will allow priests to marry. That will solve somewhat the issue of priests "checking" out young boys, but instead will have their own girlfriends and wive(s).
Guys that marry will not solve the issue of men checking out young boys. Jerry Sandusky is married. How did that work out?
"m not Catholic or even a believer, but I can understand that if the next pope were not European, this will mean that the Catholic Church is even less relevant as a Western Cultural force than ever and the head of a European state is not European. It will represent yet another decline of the West. Some will post back immediately saying that this doesn't matter. It will, you'll see.
The pope's handle should be "The empty one" Give the pope back his handle. Nobody fits that handle as well as the pope.
To bring true unity and much need trust and new life the New Pope must come from out side of Europe
Who cares? The whole concept of god is rediculous. The church is a business and the whole theatrics of chosing a pope is to make money by having followers feast their eyes on the tv screens blasting commercials or to promote tourism. The church is a money and power scheme of the utmost proportion; and whoever believes in it are their best customers.
Yeah, that's why the process has been the same for hundreds of years before TV was even invented...
Perhaps a shift of the entire RCC to south of the equator will begin with the choice of this new pope. Just a daydream. Can't wish that on the good folks down under.
The next pope could come from mars. He'll have as much of an impact as the last pope. He'll just be figure head, sit on a throne, mumble his speech and not matter much. NEXT!
I am 39 years old and have watched how stagnant the church has become in many ways over the past 30 years at least. I was really hoping for one of the younger talented Cardinals from Africa or Latin America to be pope instead of Benedict. We need a young energetic pontif to infuse a new Catholic vision and ideals to the world. Modernize and open up that hidden, centralized Catholic world, please.
"Modernize and open up that hidden, centralized Catholic world,"
You mean the one with even more deeply superst-itious cultures?
A fresh new pope to bring a new birth of trust and unity.He must come from out of europe
Have an "Afro Latino" Pope from some place in Latin America.. Solves the black and latin american debate. God bless everybody
The next Pope will be from Fantasyland. Just like always.
Pope will not come from Africa or Latin America. That may be where the flock is but that ain't where the money is.
My thoughts exactly. It will be a political move that benefits the whole of the cause. They need support and money.
Saying he's chosen or ordained by God is a farce.....the pope will be hand picked because he will bring in the support.
I just had a vision of a pope with gold front teeth and that pope mobile bouncing down the road.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.