Only three of the 117 cardinals participating in the meeting come from Canada, and their differences are greater than their similarities -- although all have stood firm in their battles against abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia.
"There is a joke in Rome that this is the longest conclave in history because it started in 1992," said Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the 60-year-old archbishop of Quebec and Catholic prelate of Canada. "We've had lists, then we've had new lists, and so on. The names that are circulating are serious names to be sure, but it's not exhaustive. All options are open."
The three Canadians -- Cardinal Ouellet, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal and Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, archbishop of Toronto -- will meet with the other 114 red-robed princes of the church today in Rome to set the date for the pontiff's funeral. It is expected to take place Friday.
The conclave will not officially begin until 15 to 20 days after the Pope's death, but the cardinals will spend the coming days assessing their colleagues from 52 countries, weighing who would be best equipped to lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. None of the three Canadians is considered a serious contender for the job.
"It is absolutely fruitless to figure out how the three Canadian cardinals will vote, because they don't know their minds either," said Michael Higgins, president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo. ". . . They will be looking at the question of succession through the prisms of their own age, their experience as priests and the pastoral needs of their jurisdiction."
Cardinal Ouellet, a media-savvy Vatican insider and staunch defender of the late Pope's conservative views, may be looking for someone to solidify John Paul's moral authority. Yet he will also be mindful of the crisis facing the church in Quebec, where many people identify themselves as Catholic only in a cultural sense, rejecting the church's traditional teachings.
Cardinal Ouellet believes the next pontiff is unlikely to match John Paul in charisma.
"Maybe we won't have such a gifted personality, but it doesn't matter. Your main task as pope is to confirm your brothers in the faith," he said. Cardinal Ouellet, who speaks Italian, is expected to wield more influence in the discussions on papal succession than Cardinal Turcotte, 68.
Cardinal Turcotte, affable and populist, is more at ease tying on an apron at a Montreal east-end soup kitchen than roaming the halls of the Vatican.
"He's a man of the people," said John Zucchi, director of Catholic studies at McGill University. "He will be looking out for social-justice issues and will be bringing his concerns with him to the conclave."
Last week, Cardinal Turcotte admitted to being "a little afraid" of the succession process. "I'm a very simple man," he said. "I will bring the experience I have into it, or try to . . . the rest will come from the Holy Spirit and God."
The challenges facing Cardinal Ambrozic are very different. The 75-year-old Slovenian-born cleric survived the end of the Second World War in an Austrian camp for displaced persons.
A celebrated scriptural scholar, he presides over an immigrant-heavy archdiocese where church attendance is on the rise. Many of the 1.5 million Catholics in the Toronto area are from South Korea, the Philippines, Latin America and Africa. For this reason, Cardinal Ambrozic may be less interested in the challenge of adapting church teachings to Canadian culture.
"He doesn't look upon North American culture and secularism as being the only normative culture, and won't be steamrolled by its assumptions," said Suzanne Scorsone, spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Toronto.
Cardinal Ambrozic often shuns the limelight, but he did intervene in last year's gay-marriage debate, sending an open letter of opposition to Prime Minister Paul Martin.With a report from Canadian Press
Electors by the numbers
Western Europe has the largest bloc of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope. Only cardinals under 80 can vote.
Number of cardinals: 183
(from 60 countries)
Number of cardinal electors: 117
(from 54 countries)
Cardinals 80 and over: 66*
Born in the 1950s: 2
** 1920s: 32
Oldest voting cardinal: Marco Ce, 7, Patriarch of Venice, appointed by Pope John Paul in 1979.
Youngest cardinal: Peter Erdo, 52, of Hungary, appointed in 2003.
Cardinal electors by region
***North America: 14
Western Europe: 46
Eastern Europe: 12
Latin America: 21
Countries with most electors
United States: 11
*Cardinals in their 80 th year of age cannot take part in a papal election.
**born after April 2, 1925.
*** North American includes only the U.S. and Canada
SOURCE: The Vatican, ca-catholics.net