The cardinals have assembled in Rome to begin choosing the next pope. The secret conclave will choose Pope Benedict XVI's successor in a series of ballots, the first of which will be taken tonight.
Although the former Cadinal Ratzinger was selected in 24 hours after just four rounds of voting, this time around observers say it will probably take until Friday before white smoke emanating from the Sistene Chapel's furnace indicates a pope has been elected.
While there is much speculation about who will became pope, there are actually issues more important than that to both Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.
The theological differences among the cardinals are not too great, with most of them being essentially conservative.
According to press reports, cardinals, who are a bit more reform-oriented, are backing one or more of the Italian candidates who they think would show at least some significant independence from the Vatican and the Curia while, at the same time, being able to deal with them. The more conservative "Romans" are backing the Brazilian candidate, Otto Scherer, according to reports. Coming from Latin America, they believe he will give them the cover of favoring change while not actually changing much of anything. Neither of these blocs has enough power to elect the Pope so they will move to forge alliances, including with the American cardinals. While New York's Timothy Dolan is mentioned in the top 20 possible selections it is thought that he is a highly unlikely choice.
Chris Pumpelly, communications director of Catholics United, said he hoped that "at the very least, if we get a cardinal from the developing or third world or from the global South to become Pope we could expect that such a person would have a heightened understanding of the needs of the big part of humanity that suffers under incredible poverty."
For Pumpelly and for the majority of Catholics, for that matter, there are issues of much greater concern than just who wins the papal election this week.
First, the Catholic Church has been marred by sex abuse scandals in recent years, an issue most Catholics hope the next pope will address.
"In this regard, it is unfortunate that some of the American cardinals havn't taken themselves out of the voting process," said Pumpelly.
"Catholics in the 21st century want honesty and transparency from their Church. When Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, who was involved in allegations of sex abuse, does not remove himself from the voting process it does not look good. The same goes for the cardinals from Boston and New York. There were questions and concerns about the cardinal in Scotland and his alleged involvement in sex abuse. He recused himself from the voting which is as it should be."
In addition to sex scandals, the Church will have to address transparency in financial dealings, Pumpelly said, in response to a question about growing allegations concerning the Vatican Bank.
"The scandals associated with the Vatican bank, particularly over the last four decades, are so sordid and improbable as to strain the creativity of a supermarket tabloid," wrote Lynn Stuart Parramore recently in an Alternet article.
On May of 2012, Pope Benedict's butler was arrested for leaking documentation of financial corruption involving the Vatican and major Italian companies. The Vatican Bank's chairman, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was dumped when the bank's role in money laundering for drug traffickers was exposed.
Right-wing politicians, organized crime bosses and wealthy tax evaders apparently dealt with the Vatican Bank regularly.
In order to restore a semblance of respectfulness to the face of its operations. Pope Benedict appointed Ernst von Freyburg, a German lawyer , as the new director of the bank. That became problematic when the press began to probe Freyburg's links to companies that made warships for Nazi Germany.
Then there were other outrageous moral scandals like the Church's top exorcist claiming that a pile of bones buried in a church tomb belonged to a schoolgirl forced to perform sex for priests' sex parties.
"For the good of the Church things will have to be done differently, whoever is Pope," said Pumpelly. "In these times the people will not stand for Church leaders who cannot be held to the same standards we hold any public or political official. We are all human beings, prone to mistakes and failings but that does not relieve us of our responsibility to live lives of truthfulness in all our dealings with one another."
Photo: Cardinals attend a Mass for the election of a new pope inside St Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican. Andrew Medichini/AP