for National Geographic News
Pope John Paul II died today in Vatican City at the age of 84. Born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, he served as pope for 27 yearsthe third longest reign in Roman Catholic Church history.
He leaves the church at a time of historic transition, further complicating the question on everybody's lips: Who will be the next pope?
Baptized Catholics numbered 757 million in 1978, the year John Paul II took office. Today that number has grown to 1.1 billion, with nearly 65 percent living in the developing world.
"Catholicism has been moving south to Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where there's a lot of growth, whereas Catholicism in western Europe has been in decline," said Chester Gillis, chair of the Department of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Given the 148 percent increase in the number of Catholics in Africa in the last 25 years, there has been some speculation that the choice of the next pontiff might reflect these changing demographics.
Break With Tradition?
Two hundred and seventeen popes have been Italian. By contrast, 17 have been French, 6 German, and 3 Spanish. England, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Poland each yielded one pope. The African continent has produced three pontiffs. The last of them, Gelasius I, took office in 492.
Electing a non-Italian pope would break a long-held tradition of the church. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pontiff to be elected since 1523.
The church's voting blocs, however, don't necessarily divide along geographic lines. Cardinals of liberal and conservative persuasions can be found on all continents.
"There are several scenarios," Gillis said. "One is that, after having a Polish pope for 27 years, the cardinals want to return to one of their own and elect an Italian. Another would be that the pope would be a figure from the developing world. The other scenario is that they'll choose a European who can revive moribund Christianity in Europeor try to, anyway."
"I think there's a good likelihood that the next pope will come from outside Italy," Gillis said.
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