For example, Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s peace and justice department, is considered the frontrunner from Africa.  His criticism of Muslims, however, has raised doubts about his views on Islam.  Another prospect is Wilfrid Fox Napier, the Archbishop of Durban who served in his position during apartheid, and is a friend of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Retired Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria comes from the Ibo people and was converted to Catholicism as a child.  A nation with 20 million Catholics and the largest Christian population on the continent, Nigeria is shared among Protestants, Catholics and Muslims.  The cardinal is known for his ecumenical tendencies and bridge-building across faiths.

Another favorite is the charismatic Luis Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines, who was recently appointed cardinal by the Pope.

Latin America has its favorites for Vatican chief as well.  The leading candidate is Odilo Pedro Scherer, the Archbishop of Sao Paulo, the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic nation.  A Brazilian, Joao Braz de Aviz, has also been seen as a shining star as the leader of the Vatican department for religious congregations.  He is an adherent of liberation theology, and prioritizes the needs of the poor.  Further, Leonardo Sandri, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina to Italian parents, once was the Vatican chief of staff.

In 2007, Pope Benedict claimed that Catholicism had purified indigenous populations, even suggesting the native populations were longing for Christianity, and had welcomed the Catholic priests at the time of European conquest.  His remarks offended many.

But if the energy of today’s Catholic Church emanates from the warmer parts of the world that were once colonized by Europe, then a pope from the South could help redeem a church that once endorsed slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples.  Behind the symbolism is a sign of changing times and ways of thinking.

Cardinal Theodore Adrien Sarr noted this week that he often thought about the notion of an African pope.  “I’ve been wondering about such a question since so many years now,” Sarr said. “But is the church ready to have a pope from Africa? Is the entire world ready to accept a pope from Africa?”

Meanwhile, Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, a Nigerian, offered to the AP that Catholics would accept a black pope as “God’s will, and the church will keep moving.”

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove