The Roman Catholic Church, stunned by news Monday that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of the month, is expected to have a new leader by Easter.
Speculation about who will be the next leader of the 1 billion-plus-member church has already begun as the church faces a situation not experienced since the Middle Ages. That's because the 85-year-old German's resignation will be the first since Celestine V, who voluntarily stepped down less than a year after becoming pontiff in 1294.
Benedict, who has been in office since April 2005, announced his intent to leave the papacy at a Monday meeting of cardinals.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," he told the cardinals. "I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering."
Benedict's eight-year tenure extended the conservative policies and teachings of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II of Poland, who died in office. Whether those policies and teachings will be reinforced or moderated depends on who is the next pope.
It is widely expected that Italian cardinals, stung by the fact that their peers have twice elected a non-Italian as pope are expected to push hard for a return of the papacy to one of their own. However, the fact that the church is moribund in Italy and much of Europe will give fresh impetus to cardinals from the Third World, where the church is growing.
Among those being discussed as possible successors are:
Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, 80;
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, 64;
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, 68;
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, 69;
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy, 70;
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, Italy, 69;
Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, Italy, 70;
Cardinal Tarsicio Bertone of Italy, the Vatican's secretary of state, 77;
Cardinal Christoph Schnoborn of Austria, 67;
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergogli of Argentina, 75;
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, 62;
Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka, 64;
Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico, 70; and
Cardinal George Pell of Australia, 70.