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Vatican watchers predict Italians or Latin Americans are most likely to claim St. Peter's throne.
VATICAN CITY — Italy's restrictions on online gambling make it difficult for Romans to check out the bookies' favorites to become the next pope.
But talk around a sun-drenched St. Peter's Square on Friday suggests that despite the shortening odds, it's by no means a safe bet that an African will be taking over at the Holy Sea.
"It's too early for an African," Kenyan seminary student Geoffrey Menya predicted as he waited for a bus just outside the Vatican walls. "The possibility is about 1 percent. Maybe it will happen some time, but not now."
"Europe is losing its faith, becoming more secular, so they should go for somebody from one of the new countries," said Frenchman Herve Moniot.
"But it's not the right time for Africa yet, there just aren't enough cardinals there," the Parisian pensioner added as he snapped photos of the basilica. "They should look to Latin America, that's where the church is strongest."
The surprise announcement of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation has triggered a frenzy of speculation about who the 118 cardinal-electors will choose as his successor after their conclave vote in the Sistine Chapel that's expected before Easter, at the end of March.
After the German-born Benedict and his Polish predecessor John Paul II, will the cardinals revert to tradition and elect an Italian to occupy St. Peter's throne — as they did from 1523 to 1978?
Or will they make a more radical choice that reflects a shift of the church's axis away from Europe, and chose a pontiff from Africa, Asia or the Americas where most of the faithful now live?
"The center of gravity in Catholicism has shifted in the last generation or so very heavily southward," says Nick Spencer, research director, at Theos, a London-based think tank. "It would certainly seem to make sense to have somebody who can connect with the concerns of the majority of Catholics in those counties."
Milan's Cardinal Angelo Scola is the current favorite according to the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, which is offering odds of 11/4 on the 71-year-old truck driver's son.
Vatican insiders say Scola is close to Benedict, sharing the outgoing pope's conservative social views, but with a common touch and a declared drive to re-invigorate the church in Europe. His age could count against him in the light of Benedict's resignation at 85.
"There is a great interest among the Italian cardinals to regain the papacy for Italy," says William Madges, professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. "They have a lot of influence in the Curia," he added, referring to the Holy See's Rome-based administration.
All but two of the remaining top 10 frontrunners on Paddy Power's books are from outside Europe. Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson has been attracting the most attention and is second favorite with odds of 7/2.
"I think in a way the church is always and has forever been ready for a non-European pope," Turkson told The Associated Press this week, adding that he was willing to take on the hope, "if it's the will of God."
A charismatic communicator, Turkson speaks several languages and has raised his profile with regular TV broadcasts in West Africa. His conservative views have raised alarm from gay rights groups and he's been criticized for insensitivity in relations with Islam.
From Latin America the leading candidates to emerge so far are Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga from Honduras and Odilo Scherer of Brazil, the world's biggest Catholic country. Another Argentine Jorge Bergoglio is seen as a good outside bet at 25/1.
"There is a reasonable case for choosing somebody outside Europe, given that Catholicism is growing at the fastest rate in Africa and the largest congregation is in Latin America," said Madge.
"My sense is that if it is not a European, it will be somebody from Latin America, that would give further evidence of the Catholic Church being a universal church," he told GlobalPost in a telephone interview.
Non-European popes are not unprecedented.
Saint Peter was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee before coming to Rome to found the papacy. He was followed by a scattering of popes from North Africa and the Middle East up to the eighth century, but none since the Syrian-born Gregory III who died in 741.
Almost three-quarters of the world 1.2 billion Catholics live outside Europe with Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and the United States the world's biggest Catholic countries.
However, if the global numbers point to a break with tradition, conclave mathematics suggest another outcome. Italians make up almost a quarter of the voting cardinals, and Europeans more than half.
Whoever gets the job, most Vatican watchers see the new pope continuing the conservative theological and doctrinal line followed by Benedict XVI and John Paul II, given that all of the cardinal-electors were appointed by one or other of the last two popes.
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For Catholics visiting St. Peter's following Benedict's shock announcement, the need for a pope with the physical and moral strength to handle the strains of the papacy seemed more important than his nationality.
"The success of the church does not depend on the color of his skin, or his nationality, or any of those things" said Victor, a Ghanian electrician living in Rome. "It depends on his character, and whether he is capable of doing the job. He could be Ghanian, or Chinese or Mexican. It does not matter."