As they gather Monday in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome to elect the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the 115 cardinals eligible to vote need only review the 27-year tenure of John Paul II to discern the qualities the new pope should possess to successfully shepherd the 1 billion faithful worldwide.
While the discussions that have preceded the conclave of the College of Cardinals have focused on the changing face of the church -- Latin America, Africa and Asia accounted for 65 percent of the world's Roman Catholics in 2000 and the number is projected to rise to 73 percent by 2025 -- John Paul proved that nationality does not really matter.
His success stemmed from his ability to make Catholics everywhere forget that he was of Polish origin. He personified the universality of the church.
It is true that John Paul was the first non-Italian in 455 years, but given that Europe has only 25.8 percent of the world's Catholics and Mass attendance has stagnated or declined in much of the continent's onetime Catholic heartland, the issue of nationality is nothing more than a distraction.
Love and affection
John Paul visited more than 100 countries during his papacy and wherever he went he was greeted with genuine love and affection.
Even among Catholics who disagreed with his conservative theology and his refusal to bend on such emotionally charged subjects as abortion, contraception and divorce, there was an acknowledgment of his ability to connect with young and old, rich and poor. He even reached out across religious lines, thereby healing long-standing wounds.
John Paul has left a road map -- literally and figuratively -- for the new pope to use. The fact that the church is more vibrant in the Third World than in Europe and the United States means that the leader will have to follow in his predecessor's footsteps.
The U.S. Catholic Church will demand the attention of the Vatican not only because of its wealth, but because of the problems that have plagued it in recent years. The scandal of sexual abuse of children and pedophilia by priests is still unfolding. More than 300 of the 46,000 priests in this country have been taken off duty because of sex abuse allegations.
In addition, the overall shortage of priests, the declining enrollment in parochial schools, and the declining membership in parishes all point to the need for papal guidance.
Indeed, John Paul II's failure to deal in a realistic way with was going on in the Catholic Church in America gave his critics ammunition.
Whoever is elected will have to live with being compared to his predecessor, which is why the cardinals need to find someone who can attain the rock-star status that John Paul II enjoyed.