The Enforcer's name popped up on the list of potential papal successors last fall like a rabbit yanked from a magician's hat.
Suddenly, mysteriously, just about every media organization with a Vatican correspondent began mentioning Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful chief of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (hence his nickname), as a front-runner to fill John Paul II's shoes as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Few reporters previously had included Cardinal Ratzinger on their papabile pope material lists, discounting him variously as too old at 77, too disliked because of his perceived rigid theological orthodoxy, too closely identified with John Paul's centralized rule.
Plausible or not, the abrupt, would-be candidacy of the cardinal a rather charming intellectual behind his Darth Vader reputation points to the sort of political manoeuvring that has taken on momentum as the Pope has slid toward death.
Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the leading Italian candidate given 5-to-2 odds this week by Irish bookmakers Paddy Power turns up in the Balkans to promote ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, while Colombia's Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, another papabile turns up in New York to make a speech to Hispanic priests on the growing clout of Western Hemisphere Catholics.
Meanwhile, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodrigues Maradiaga considered too young and too much like John Paul to be papabile himself says bluntly in an interview that the next pope should be a Latin American. Which is countered by Belgium's Cardinal Gottfried Danneels who makes few papabile lists because he is considered too liberal stating that a non-European pope is "10 years too early."
Generally speaking, church observers group the 117 cardinals eligible to elect the next pope into four overlapping constituencies:
There are those, likely a majority, who decidedly don't want the next papacy to last as long as John Paul's, who was elected Pope in 1978 at age 58.
They will favour an older man, maybe a caretaker pope, to nanny the church as it adapts to a new era without John Paul's fist on the tiller, but who will not stay in the job too long.
There are cardinals who will want a pope from the global South, where nearly 70 per cent of the world's Catholics now live.
Opposing them will be cardinals who think one of John Paul's great failures was his inability to address European secularism, and who, therefore, feel the next pope should be a Western European.
And there will be cardinals who, despite sharing John Paul's conservative theology which virtually all of them do have chafed under his centralized iron authority and will want the next pope to be more collegial, which is Catholic code language for allowing national churches and bishops to be more in charge of their own show.
With the deepening concern over Christianity's crumbling in Europe, the Italians are back in favour.
For example, Cardinal Tettamanzi, 71, the genial, tubby (he's barely 5 feet tall) Archbishop of Milan is on nearly everybody's list. He's a conservative moral theologian who opposes birth control but has nonetheless tolerated Catholic social agencies handing out condoms to prostitutes as a protection against HIV-AIDS.
As a European alternative to the Italians, there's Germany's Cardinal Walter Kasper, 72, a gifted scholar, comfortable in English and a strong advocate of collegiality.
Which is not to rule out Germany's Cardinal Ratzinger, 77, who has assumed increasing responsibility for running the church along with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 77 as the Pope's health has steadily declined and who, like Cardinal Sodano, could be seen as a caretaker pope.
The leading Latin American candidate is thought by many to be Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 70, of Brazil, Catholicism's most populous country.
He's firmly in the collegial camp, thinks the Vatican is too remote from Latin America's social problems and has indicated he won't shut the door on any debate about ordaining women as priests.
The most colourful Latin American candidate is Colombia's Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, 75, who once posed as a milkman to go to the house of a powerful drug boss and demand he surrender to police, and who has walked the streets at night feeding the destitute and mentally ill.
And there's Nigeria's urbane Cardinal Francis Arinze, 72, who has spent 20 years as a top Vatican administrator. A specialist in interfaith relations who has seldom put a foot wrong in his speeches and writings, he would be officially the first black pope.