Following the shock announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will stand down later this month, speculation is rife over who the next Pontiff will be.
One thing that experts appear to agree on is that there is a strong possibility he will be the first non-European leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The frontrunner according to some bookmakers is Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson who, if he was voted in for the top job, would be the first black person to do so.
Three popes have hailed from Africa, but all were from Roman Africa and there is debate over whether they were white or Arab in appearance.
They were Pope Victor I from 189 to 199, Pope Miltiades from 311 until 314, and Pope Galasius, pope from 492 until 496.
Other sources suggest that the next leader could be from even further afield and they suggest he could be a Latin American where there are 1.2 billion Catholics – 42 per cent of the world’s Catholic population.
Until John Paul II, who was from Poland, and Benedict XVI, from Germany, became popes the position was reserved solely for Italians. However, the post is now open to all.
Who gets the nod depends on the profile of the new pope that the cardinals who elect him at the next conclave think will guide the Church best.
Cardinal Turkson is currently the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and took over from the post of Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship after Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.
He has spoken about the prospect of the first black pope saying: ‘If God would wish to see a black man also as pope, thanks be to God’.
He was born in Wassaw Nsuta, Western Ghana, and studied at St Teresa’s Seminary in the village of Amisano and Pedu.
He went on to get a Bachelor’s degree in theology at St Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, New York. In July 1975 he was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop John Amissah.
Pope John Paul II made him Archbishop of Cape Coast in October 1992 and he became the first Ghanaian cardinal in 2003.
When it comes to Aids he keeps true to the Catholic teaching on contraception but conceded that condoms could be used by a married, faithful couple where one partner is infected.
He is not the only black African cardinal who could be elected to the job of pope with good odds being offered for Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze.
He is currently Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and succeeded Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) to become Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni.
However, he could be hampered by his extreme conservative views on birth control and abortion which would not sit well with North America and Europe.
From Latin America, Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paolo, or Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri.
Two senior Vatican officials recently dropped 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.
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.