In no previous conclave throughout the Church's history have the numbers of residential or pastoral cardinals comprised such an overwhelming majority over the cardinals of the Curia, the bureaucratic managers in Vatican City.
It is these far-flung princes of the Church -- from 53 countries and every shade of race and culture on Earth -- who will bring to Rome the huge and conflicting issues of a globalized world, looking for a pope who fits.
They will want another pontiff with John Paul's theatrical genius at planting the banner of the papacy and the Church on the world's centre-stage. But they also will want a leader who understands the contradiction in a church called Roman Catholic: It is Catholic -- meaning universal -- as much as, if not more than, it is Roman.
The late John Paul had an incomparable understanding of the link between religion and culture in his native Poland, said Church scholar Michael Higgins, president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont. But he questioned how much John Paul understood culture in its many forms throughout the rest of the Church.
"He brought the papacy to the world, but was there reciprocity?" Dr. Higgins asked. "When you see increasingly, for example, that the African Church is more African than Roman, did John Paul learn to respect their . . . experiences?"
It is a dilemma -- and a question -- being asked by leaders in every corner of the Church, especially in Latin America and Africa, where most Catholics live, and in the fractured, restive Roman Catholicism of North America and Europe.
On the one hand, the leaders of the African Church are looking for a pope who can be a bulwark for Catholicism in its uneasy dealings with Islam and the proselytizing inroads being made by evangelical Protestants heavily financed by U.S. churches.
The University of Toronto's Reid Locklin, an academic specialist in Christian culture and interfaith relations, said that in John Paul, many Muslims saw an alternative West -- someone who shared their criticism of materialism, as well as the leader of a church that supported the Muslim community in France in opposition to the secular "head-scarf law."
And the Pope proved a formidable instrument against Protestant evangelicalism, capable of presenting religion to the masses with a simple joy -- or as Dr. Higgins put it: "Straddling the line between emotion and Catholic cerebralism."
But at the same time, Dr. Higgins noted, John Paul's Vatican halted the drift of the African Church toward its own liturgy blended with local culture, which was tolerated by his predecessor, Paul VI.
In Latin America, where the issues are perhaps more complex, John Paul similarly proved a valuable ally in staunching the stream of Catholics converting to Protestant evangelism -- what the late Pope once termed "the insidious problem of sects."
While the Catholic Church used political action based on intellectual theology to improve the lot of peasants and the urban poor, Dr. Higgins noted that the evangelicals -- again well funded by U.S. parent churches -- "merely handed out food and said 'Praise the Lord.' "
John Paul could deliver religion to the masses with the same simplicity. But he also severely undermined the church's liberation theology, a theology with its roots in the earliest days of European colonization in South and Central America, not dissimilar to the theology of Social Gospel in Canada that had a major impact on public policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, leaders of the Latin American Church, such as Brazil's Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who is considered a candidate for pope, speak of the Vatican being too remote from regional problems such as poverty and drugs.
Many of them see economic globalization as a new colonialism that the church should be resisting, Dr. Higgins said.
As for North America and Europe, with their debates over birth control, ordination of women, abortion and married priests, the best word to characterize the relationship with the Vatican is alienation.
Nevertheless, as the princes of the Church gather in Rome, historian Giulio Silano, a specialist in Christianity and culture at University of Toronto's St. Michael's College, raises a caveat to the talk of a democratized, decentralized more collegial church. Those who demand it, he says, offer few specifics about what Rome hinders them from doing.
"The fact is, too many bishops are fearful of using the powers they have," he said.
As for the residential cardinals seizing the agenda with the issues of a global Church, Prof. Silano said: "By definition, they see only their own dioceses." It can be argued, he said, that it is the curial cardinals who have access to the more global Church.
"It's going to be a difficult conclave," Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski said in Rome this week.