The Catholic Church’s fastest growth is in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but experts say cardinals assembled in Rome this week won’t be looking to reflect changes in church demographics when they select the next pope.

Pope Benedict XVI surprised Catholics the world over on Feb. 11 when he announced he would be stepping down at the end of the month. He is the first Pope to retire in 600 years, and his decision has set in motion the process through which the College of Cardinals will elect his successor, a centuries-old ritual known as a conclave.

As Catholics await news of the identity of their next spiritual leader, speculation is rampant about who will replace the shy academic who lacked the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II.

Will he reflect the rapid changes of the church’s demographics, or will an Italian (two are among the perceived frontrunners) be voted in to stick with tradition?

According to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, while the number of Catholics as a percentage of the world’s population has remained steady over the last 100 years, their geographic distribution has changed dramatically.

In 1910, the majority of the world’s Catholics lived in either Europe (65 per cent) or Latin America (24 per cent). North America was home to just five per cent, as was the Asia-Pacific region, while less than one per cent of Catholics lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

By 2010:

  • 39 per cent of the Catholic population lived in Latin America or the Caribbean.
  • 24 per cent lived in Europe.
  • 16 per cent lived in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • 12 per cent lived in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • 8 per cent lived in North America.

Catholicism is on the decline in Europe, and the church’s growth in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia has clearly exploded. While sub-Saharan Africa has experienced the largest growth, Latin America is still home to the largest percentage of the world’s Catholics.

When Benedict announced he was stepping down, clergy in Africa openly speculated to the media whether the College of Cardinals will look at the stats and choose a pope who is better able to represent the regions in which some consider the church’s future rests.

Cardinal Theodore-Adrien Sarr of Senegal said back on Feb. 11 that he has long considered whether there would one day be an African pope.

"I've been wondering about such a question since so many years now," Sarr told reporters. "But is the church ready to have a pope from Africa? Is the entire world ready to accept a pope from Africa?"

There have, in fact, been three popes from the continent, hundreds of years ago from the region that is now modern-day Tunisia and Libya. The last time there was a non-European pope was the 8th century.

But when looking at some of the top contenders, it would seem Africa’s time has yet to come and more likely that the next pope will represent Latin America.

Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana was considered a serious contender, but he made some gaffes that likely  torpedoed his chances of becoming the next pope. He is head of the Vatican’s peace and justice office, and has led efforts to fight poverty on the African continent.

However, he has also disappointed HIV/AIDS activists by reinforcing the church’s position on condom use, and was recently criticized for circulating an anti-Islamic video. He has also appeared to openly campaign for the job, which is considered a no-no.

A pope from Latin America is considered more likely, with a handful of emerging near the top of experts’ lists. Cardinal Odilo Scherer from Brazil is a social conservative who also embraces social media to spread the word.

In contrast, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian of Italian descent, specializes in the pastoral work some consider a top skill for the job, and has modernized the church in Argentina, which was once one of the most conservative. He was also the runner-up in the last conclave.

"I think we would have a better chance of getting someone outside of the northern hemisphere this time, because there are some really promising cardinals from other parts of the world," Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa recently told The Associated Press.

"It's a question of where is the kind of (and) the quality of leadership evident at the moment: Coming from a growing background rather than a holding or a maintenance background?"

But that, experts say, is not quite the question cardinals will be asking themselves when they enter the conclave. Dr. Michael Higgins, CTV’s Papal commentator, author and the vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, said some cardinals may consider the future pope’s birthplace when they cast their vote. But “ethnicity and nationality are not deciding factors,” he said.

“The bigger question is not where the Pope comes from. I think in fact that’s a red herring,” Higgins told in a telephone interview. “I think the question is, ‘What kind of a pope do we need to follow Benedict?’”

Higgins said the issue of following the church’s growth when looking for a successor to Benedict is “problematic,” because “it’s not always an indicator of maturity.”

In his view, the church needs a leader that is engaged with the wider world, ready to face challenges such as abuse and other blights on the church, and establish a relationship with other faiths. If the candidate that fits that bill comes from Asia or Africa or Latin America, so be it.

But the odds-on favourite is Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy, who has served as archbishop of Milan, the country’s largest and most influential diocese. He is conservative, but is also well-read and widely published on a variety of topics, and is the leading contender according to U.K. bookmakers William Hill, Paddy Power and Ladbrokes.

Father Patrick Ryan, J.S., the McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham University who spent decades working in sub-Saharan Africa, said there are a number of top candidates from Africa, including Turkson and Sarr, as well as Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria (though at 80, he is likely a long-shot).

But ultimately, the cardinals will look for a candidate “who will give hope to the church, and not just another boring administrator,” Ryan says.

“I’m not saying that about Benedict necessarily. Benedict was very intellectual, but he was not full of personal dynamism. He was a shy, scholarly type. And I think (the cardinals will choose) somebody more on the lines of John Paul II … the way he was at the beginning, able to go around and connect to the public in various languages and with a certain charm and verve.”

With files from The Associated Press