Bookies put odds on just about everything, so it's no surprise that they're already sizing up the chances of potential successors to Pope Benedict XVI, who this week became the first pontiff in six centuries to announce his resignation. The process of choosing the next pope probably won't be complete until the end of March, or later, but for the first time the favorites appear to be leaders from outside Europe. One, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, is from Canada. The others are from Africa — Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Is now the time for the Catholic Church to pick its first black pope?

Church leaders in Africa appear split on how likely that is to happen. It would be "quite some miracle," according to Matthias Kobena Nketsiah, archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana. "If the Church chooses a Third World person or a black pope it will have to come to terms with itself," he said. "I am not saying the Church is racist, but there are overtones and perceptions that maybe add up to that." Others are giving better odds. Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, said recently that he wouldn't be surprised to see an African pope in his lifetime, possibly soon. "The fact that the Gospel is to be preached to all peoples, languages, and races means that the highest leadership of the church should be open to anyone from any race, language, and nation," he said.

Some experts believe that choosing a pope from Africa would be the best thing for the faithful in the developing world, and the best thing for the Church. "At a time when the pews and churches of Europe and North America are empty and many dioceses are declaring bankruptcy," says Stan Chu Ilo at CNN, "the churches in Africa are filled beyond capacity every Sunday." There has a been a global shift in the world's Catholic population from North to South in the last three decades, and for the first time in history more than half of the faithful come from Latin America or Africa.

For many Catholics, where a pope comes from may not be as important as who the pope is, but for most African Catholics the election of an African pope will be a wonderful sign that African Catholicism has come of age, and they hope that such a pope will address squarely the particular challenges facing Africans today and integrate African culture and socio-economic priorities into mainstream Catholicism. [CNN]

One Catholic with special insight into the matter — Pope Benedict's older brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger — doesn't think it will happen just yet, as the College of Cardinals isn't changing as fast as the Catholic population in the pews. "I'm certain a pope will come from the new continents but whether it will be now, I have my doubts," he says. "In Europe, we have many very able people, and the Africans are still not so well known and maybe do not have the experience yet."

According to The Associated Press, that's an important point. "The face of the Roman Catholic Church has changed profoundly in Pope Benedict XVI's lifetime." Western congregations are smaller and older, while those in the developing world are booming. The transformation, however, isn't reflected in the College of Cardinals yet, and that's where the next pope will be chosen.

In fact, the membership of the conclave remains — by its regional breakdowns, at least — more of a look back on what the church was rather than a reflection of where it is headed.

Europeans still dominate the group, representing more than half of the possible 117 cardinals who with gather in the Sistine Chapel to vote. However, the pressures of the 21st century church — battered by abuse scandals and losing stature in the West — are likely to exert themselves strongly in the deliberations and the fundamental choices facing the papal electors. [Associated Press]