It needs a contemporary crisis manager, someone who can master the conflicts within the church with a strong hand, and can weather or, better yet, avoid scandals. He should be just as intellectually gifted as Ratzinger, as spiritually steadfast as Jesus Christ, as charismatic as Karol Wojtyla and, of course, just as young. Wojtyla was 58 when he was elected. In a nutshell, the church is seeking a mediator, a cleanup man and a tough man, and yet someone is nevertheless tender in his faith.
What it's seeking is a miracle.
The Vaticanisti agree that, given this job description, none of the six German cardinals (Paul Josef Cordes, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, Reinhard Marx, Joachim Meisner, Rainer Maria Woelki) is a possibility. If the new pope is to be a European, he will most likely be an Italian.
After almost 35 years of foreign rule, first by a Pole and then by a German, an Italian pontiff would certainly be desirable. The problem is that the Italians in the curia are divided, into both territorial groups and theological factions. Their advantage, on the other hand, is that they would not be troubled by conditions in the curia. They are accustomed to confusion, intrigues, vanities and a meticulously practiced lack of interest in reform. It's the only reality they know, both in the curia and in politics.
A few days before Benedict vacates the Apostolic See on Feb. 28, a new parliament will be elected in secular Rome. The news of Benedict's resignation is already affecting the election campaign today. It has become calmer and more objective -- for one simple reason: Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who depends so greatly on media attention, is getting much less exposure now that all eyes are on the Vatican. According to rumors in the halls of parliament, Berlusconi is livid as a result while Mario Monti and the leftists are overjoyed.
The key question is how the global composition of the College of Cardinals will affect the papal election. The conclave is still just as colorful as it was before Benedict's election. It will include cardinals from 50 countries, 61 Europeans, of which six will be German and 28 Italian, 11 cardinals from the United States, five Indians, 19 Latin Americans, 11 from both Africa and Asia, and one from Australia.
The Latin Americans, among others, have great expectations. They hope to see an end to the "Eurocentric Vatican," writes respected columnist Elio Gaspari. He believes that the "theologian and bureaucrat" Benedict will now be followed by a "shepherd" from the Third World. "He would combine the useful with the pleasant."
The members of the curia are worried about the latest developments in Latin America, where there is a shortage of tens of thousands of priests, and where many rural churches are abandoned. Millions are defecting to the Protestant Pentecostal churches. The Protestant pastors are true entertainers, their services are shows for tens of thousands of people, they sing and dance, and many sell CDs by the millions.
The Catholic Church hasn't found an effective response yet, though it has made some rather helpless attempts. Some Catholic priests, known as pop padres, are now holding their services in giant venues, and their masses have come to resemble pop concerts. Still, this hasn't stopped the growth of the Protestant churches.
Africa too is hoping for a change of course. In 2010, 15.5 percent, or about 180 million of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, were Africans. Thanks to demographic changes, their continent, along with Asia, is among the major growth regions in the global faith market. Tens of thousands of church institutions built by missionaries in the last 150 years, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages and AIDS wards, feel like islands of hope on a continent plagued by mass poverty. The church wields considerable political influence in countries that are unable to perform their social duties. The Catholic Church is considered the only functioning national institution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.
But the popularity of Pentecostal churches and Protestant sects is also on the rise. Both proclaim a simple feel-good gospel, a much more appealing message to many of the poor than the doctrines of the Catholics, Anglicans and mainstream Protestants. An African pope could be more adept at meeting this challenge; at least many Africans think so.
The churches in Africa are still filled on Sundays. White missionaries rave about the deep religiosity and strong faith of the Africans, and about their colorful liturgy and experience of spirituality. Some believe that Africa exudes the rejuvenating force that could revive the leaderless official church of the north. The church does a lot of good in Africa, and yet it is also controversial. Catholic preachers are among those in Uganda who are fomenting hatred of gays in Uganda. And on the subject of AIDS, most Catholic dignitaries in Africa adhere to the recommendations of old men from the Vatican, demonizing the use of condoms. When it comes to birth control, same-sex marriage, homosexuality or assisted suicide, they are often even more dogmatic than the Vatican.
'Obama of the Vatican'
"For God's sake, let's hope it's not an African!" Stefan Hippler, a foreign priest in South Africa, said in April 2005 before the white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel marking the beginning of Benedict's papacy. The ultra-conservative Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria, now 80, was among the favorites at the time.
This time around, though, Hippler would consider 64-year-old Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson a good choice. The Ghanaian, already dubbed the "Obama of the Vatican," is multilingual and has been a member of the Roman curia for more than three years. He is also ranked highly on gambling sites. Turkson is relatively young and open-minded on social issues. He represents positions of Liberation Theology and advocates a cautious correction of course on the issue of condoms.
A 63-year-old Brazilian with ancestors from the German state of Saarland, Odilo Pedro Scherer, is also on the list of likely possibles, as is French-Canadian Marc Ouellet, a close friend of Ratzinger who could garner the votes of North and South Americans, thereby bridging the old and new worlds.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, 63, a representative of the wealthy US church, is also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.
And then there is another candidate, the "Wojtyla from the Far East, Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. He is said to possess the brain of a theologian and the heart of a shepherd, as well as being more charismatic than most in the College of Cardinals. But at 55, he is also the second youngest in the College of Cardinals, practically a baby by Vatican standards.
Taking Advantage of Zero Hour
In short, the result of the conclave is as difficult to forecast as it was in 1978 when, after several rounds of voting, a largely unknown Pole stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. The next pope could be a black man, an African. He could be a charismatic South American or an Italian apparatchik or a reformist European. He could be someone who continues Ratzinger's course or someone who takes advantage of zero hour.
Only one thing is certain: Next Thursday, at about 5 p.m., a white Sikorsky Sea King helicopter will lift off from the landing pad in Vatican City into the skies above Rome. The pope will be on board and sitting next to him, in all likelihood, will be his private secretary, Georg Gänswein. Their destination is less than 25 kilometers (16 miles) away: Castel Gandolfo, the beloved papal summer residence, with its beautiful view of bottle-green Lake Albano.
Three hours later, at precisely 8 p.m., the pope will no longer be a pope. His chair will then be "vacante," as the sede vacante beings. There will be a simple dinner at Castel Gandolfo. The new pope will assume his office by Easter. Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, will perform his duties until then.
Joseph Ratzinger will move out of the papal palace and into his new home in the former Convent of Mater Ecclesiae, a simple, ochre-colored, 450-square-meter (4,840-square-foot) building in the Vatican gardens, with 12 rooms, as small and sparse as prayer booths. Until November, the building was occupied by 11 nuns with the Salesian Sisters, who harvested lemons and planted tomatoes, zucchini and the whitish-yellow "John Paul II" rose. Now the building is hastily being renovated, as construction debris is carried out and the library enlarged to accommodate Benedict's books -- and the two Georgs, Gänswein and Benedict's 89-year-old brother. Both men will likely visit the ex-pope's new home for a session of ora et labora.
Georg Ratzinger remembers a day, a few months ago, when they were sitting together in the room that the pope had set up for his older brother in Rome. They talked about all kinds of things. Then Benedict said that he intended to resign from office. According to his brother, he made the announcement very matter-of-factly and unemotionally, and seemed neither relieved nor sad.
"I had a few more questions relating to the implementation, but that too was discussed matter-of-factly, and the issue was settled. It didn't play a major role in our conversation. We have a great deal to discuss when we see each other, and that was only one issue," says Georg Ratzinger.
Benedict XVI, now Joseph Ratzinger once again, will remain at the Vatican, in the midst of his church but no longer at its center. He will pray and write and talk and have discussions with the two Georgs.
It's quite conceivable that he will be happy. It will be a return home, after seven years and 10 months in an office and world that were not his own.
BY FIONA EHLERS, JENS GLÜSING, BARTOLOMÄUS GRILL, FRANK HORNIG, MATTHIAS MATUSSEK, CONNY NEUMANN, ALEXANDER SMOLTCZYK and PETER WENSIERSKI