The last time the College of Cardinals (search) gathered to select a pope, the Cold War (search) dominated the globe, non-European voices in the church were weak and unfocused and dialogue with other faiths was left to second-tier envoys.
None of that is true today.
When the cardinals assemble in the Sistine Chapel (search) this month, the questions and priorities considered in selecting the next pope will reflect 26 years of profound shifts: the rising influence of African and Latin American clergy, greater pressure to allow married priests after damaging sex scandals and hopes for Vatican leadership in critical outreach between the West and the Muslim world.
These factors — and other internal pressures more difficult to predict — must eventually translate into a name written on the paper ballots used by the cardinals. How quickly a new pontiff emerges will likely be a sign of which issues take prominence in the secret selection process.
During the last conclave in 1978, the worries were largely about communism smothering religion. Now the church must concern itself with how to coexist with Islam and confront radical strains that vilify the West and inspire terrorism.
"The next pope must deal with this in the same way that John Paul II used his authority to help bring down the Berlin Wall," said John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "The (late) pope brought the papacy onto the geopolitical stage. It cannot retreat."
John Paul set impressive standards. He made unprecedented strides in opening contacts with other Christians, Jews and Muslims, including the first papal to visit a mosque — during a visit to Syria in 2001.
A cardinal considered particularly sensitive to Islamic concerns is Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a nation where clashes between Christian and Muslims have claimed thousands of lives since the late 1990s. But Arinze would force a huge leap: the first African pope in modern times.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium also is seen as having a deft diplomatic touch needed for interfaith talks and sensitive issues such as Catholic missionaries in Muslim areas and Islamic rebels in mostly Catholic Philippines, but his liberal-minded views could alarm some conservative cardinals.
Another brand of faith on another continent — Protestant groups and non-denominational evangelicals across Latin America — could also warrant extensive attention during the conclave. For decades, the competition for followers has intensified with Catholic leaders often the losers to more spirited and socially active rivals.
In 2003, John Paul urged members of the Vatican commission for Latin America to fight "the insidious problem of sects" eroding the 500-year-old Catholic traditions in the region. The Italian head of the commission, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, has been mentioned as a possible papal candidate.
Three Latin American prelates — Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes and Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina — also have developed reputations as strong advocates for greater poverty-fighting programs and activism to counter the popularity of the evangelical churches.
Rodriguez also said the conclave cannot ignore the timely debate over medical ethics, which grabbed the world's attention through the "grotesque spectacle" of the slow death of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed.
"The challenge for the new pope will be the ethical-medical discussions about genetic manipulation and the attempt to clone a human being," Rodriguez said during a Mass in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.
Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, also has Italian ancestry, which could become an important compromise point if cardinals are struggling over whether to maintain a non-Italian papacy or return to its traditional roots.
Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Milan, is considered a possible contender if the papacy goes to an Italian. There could be a sentimental pull since his predecessor, 78-year-old Cardinal Carlo Martini, was once highly touted as a possible papal candidate, but retired in 2002 and is now generally considered too old — and too liberal — for serious consideration.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads a powerful Vatican panel that watches over doctrine, is also mentioned as a possible "transitional" pope who would adhere closely to John Paul II's conservative views.
John Paul appointed all but three of the cardinals under 80 years old, the cutoff for participation in the conclave. But that doesn't ensure the new pope will carry on his outlook, some experts believe.
"I don't think you'll see a clone of the pope," said the Rev. Michael Fahey, a theologian at Marquette University who studies papal elections. "There are a lot of independent opinions from those who want a different emphasis by the Vatican."
High on the list could be greater sensitivity to the fallout from priest sex scandals that have battered the church in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. John Paul effectively closed the door on easing rules for priestly celibacy, which some Vatican critics consider a major obstacle to encouraging vocations.
Celibacy is a deeply rooted tradition in the church, but not an issue of immutable doctrine. In 1980, the late pope allowed married Episcopal clergy to join the Catholic Church and serve as priests. Married priests are common among Eastern Rite Catholics, which follow many Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican.
Liberal cardinals, however, may seek a pope willing to tackle more immediate concerns: possible greater roles for non-ordained deacons and participation of women in parish affairs. In a small, but highly visible, concession to liberals, John Paul II permitted altar girls and women — a widespread practice in the United States and some parts of Europe.
"The last thing they would want, for example, is a pope who would decide to get rid of altar girls," wrote the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a weekly Catholic magazine based in New York. "The American cardinals would also want someone who understands and supports what they are doing to deal with the sexual abuse crisis."
American cardinals also are at the forefront of appeals for more autonomy to run local affairs. There is almost no chance for an American pope, but the 11 U.S. cardinals could have important sway over the outcome.
"There is a strong desire for the church to be less centralized," said Lahey. "This will definitely play a role in the papal discussions."
But if it becomes a strong demand, it could hurt the papal chances for Vatican-based cardinals such as Arinze and Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, who runs the Vatican's commission on Christian unity.
Other issues that could influence the conclave include calls for reviewing the opposition to artificial birth control and use of condom use to prevent AIDS.
"John Paul II was the pope of the end of the postwar era," said Orazio Petrosillo, who covered the pope for Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper. "The new pope must address our modern world."