ITALY (CBS) -- With Pope Benedict's stunning announcement that he will resign later this month, the time may be coming for the Roman Catholic Church to elect its first non-European leader and it could be an African or a Latin American.
After the Pole John Paul and German-born Benedict, the post once reserved for Italians is now open to all. The new pope will be the man that the cardinals who elect him at the next conclave think will guide the Church best.
In addition, the fact that Benedict cited health reasons for resigning could favour younger candidates, no matter where they are from, said Reuters Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella.
"I would think that the last thing they want to do is elect another old pope who would be put into the same situation in a matter of five or maybe even ten years. So, it seems that the odds of having a younger pope are much greater this time."
Europe, which has half the cardinals in the conclave even though only a quarter of the world's Catholics live there, still has strong candidates if the voting tilts to the Old Continent.
Its leading candidate is Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, a traditional springboard to the papacy. Vatican watchers saw Benedict's decision to transfer him there from Venice in 2011 as a tip he might be the pontiff's preferred successor.
Scola has been an outspoken opponent of civil unions in Italy. His 2003 book The Nuptial Mystery gave a long theological argument favouring traditional marriage and denouncing abortion, artificial birth control, feminism and homosexuality.
As head of the Oasis Foundation promoting exchanges between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, he is one of the few candidates with frequent contacts with Islam, the second largest faith in the world after Christianity.
The man who might provide the most change could be Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a former student and ally of Benedict whose doctrinal orthodoxy is not in question but who has shown unusual flexibility dealing with pastoral challenges.
He opposed a "call to disobedience" by reformist priests but chose to dialogue with them rather than simply discipline them.
When conservatives urged him to unseat an openly gay man elected to a parish council, he invited him to lunch and afterward said he was a sincere man who should keep the post.
This more nuanced approach could appeal to cardinals who don't want an isolated pope but cost him votes among the most conservative cardinals.
The attraction of a non-European candidate would be in the change of style he could provide and the focus he could direct on issues closer to Catholics in developing countries.
Since all cardinals who will vote in the conclave were named by the conservative John Paul or Benedict, few would be expected to make major changes on issues such as artificial birth control, homosexuality or a wider role for women in the Church.
For many Catholics, however, the pope's origins are secondary.
"Let's allow the Holy Spirit to choose. A black pope, a white pope, a yellow pope, all that matters is that he is a good helmsman for this ship," said priest Andrea de Foglio, passing by St. Peter's Square.
American tourist Chad Sonnenberg said the pope's resignation was an opportunity for the church.
"Hopefully he is from somewhere else, very diversified. And I think it's a big opportunity to open up the Catholic Church."
Latin America represents 42 percent of the world's 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared to 25 percent in its European heartland.
If it now really is Latin America's turn, the leading candidates there seem to be Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the huge diocese of Sao Paulo, or the Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri, now heading the Vatican department for Eastern Churches.
Scherer, a Brazilian of German origin, ranks as a moderate because he both denounced the political activism of Latin America's "liberation theology" but retained its broader social concern about poverty and injustice.
Sandri, a career diplomat, doesn't have a long paper trail on hot button issues that were not part of his brief, but he could hardly have reached such a senior position at the Vatican without being in line with Church orthodoxy.
Perhaps his best known public statement was the announcement of Pope John Paul's death in 2005 when he held the Vatican's third highest post as chief of staff in the Secretariat of State.
Meanwhile, Brazilian cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, brought fresh air to the Vatican department for religious congregations when he took over in 2011. He supports the preference for the poor in Latin America's liberation theology, but not the excesses of its advocates. Possible drawbacks include his low profile.
Peter Turkson from Ghana, now head of the Vatican's justice and peace department, is often tipped as Africa's frontrunner.
On use of condoms, a key issue there because of the AIDS epidemic, he has hinted at some leeway without openly opposing the Church's basic opposition to them.
He has said fidelity and abstinence are safer options than condoms and money spent on providing condoms would be better used to supply retro-viral drugs to those already infected.
Meanwhile 55-year-old Filipino Cardinal Luis Tagle has a charisma often compared to that of the late Pope John Paul. He is also close to Pope Benedict after working with him at the International Theological Commission. However, while he has many fans, he only became a cardinal in 2012 and conclaves are wary of young candidates.
In the Vatican, most visitors and locals have an idea of the qualities the next pope should have.
"He's got to be a strong person, he's got to be kind and have love," said tourist Anne Cosgrave.
"And young," Michael Cosgrave added.
"For me, it should be a black pope because we've already got a president like that and I think it is an important century to have a black pope," shop clerk Maria Mei said.
The complex machinery to choose a successor will now move into gear, opening the way for the conclave of cardinals whose decision will be announced with the release of white smoke from a chimney in the Sistine Chapel.
Whoever is appointed will have to deal with regional issues and the tension between conservative Catholics who have supported Benedict's strictly traditional doctrinal line and others who feel he has stifled change and development.