It might be the world's most exclusive election, where 120 elaborately garbed elderly men employing ancient rituals amid great ceremony set the course for a sixth of the world's population, the 1.2 billion people who call themselves Roman Catholic.
It comes around, on average, every seven years, one of which will be 2013, thanks to the dramatic announcement by Benedict XVI on Monday that at 8pm on February 28 he will cease to be Pope. By Easter, according to a Vatican spokesman, the 266th pope will be installed. And this conclave offers the strongest likelihood yet that he may come from the developing world of Latin America, Asia or Africa - the first non-European Pope (if you don't count the Roman Empire).
Could the new Pope come from outside Europe?
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Could the new Pope come from outside Europe?
Religion writer Barney Zwartz looks at a few of the top contenders outside of Europe to be considered for the head of the Catholic church.
While there are several strong candidates, known as papabile, none stands out. Lobbying, and what in Australia might be called factional deals, will be vital.
What the cardinals decide are the most urgent issues will determine their choice. At 78, Benedict was not initially considered a serious candidate in 2005, but acceptance of his view that fighting secularism and decline in Europe was a top priority - combined with some impressive performances as dean of the college of cardinals - led to his election.
If the cardinals think that the loss of a European generation to what Benedict called ''the culture of death'' and tackling the expanding scourge of clergy sex abuse are top priority, they will probably go for a European, in which case the next Pope is likely to be Italian.
If they are moved by arguments that the Catholic centre of gravity has shifted south to Latin America and Africa, and that the most vital challenges are poverty, social justice, AIDS and increasing persecution of Catholic minorities in Asia and the Middle East, then a non-European Pope becomes more probable.
Picking a papal winner is harder than any horse race: there is no form guide, and once the race gets serious the runners get tight-lipped, apart from Italian cardinals, who leak like sieves to Italian journalists.
Some cardinals belong to fluid alliances based on common theology or other interests, while others might be called company men, loyal to the Pope and the institution. The Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy where many cardinals work, is riddled with factions and intrigues, as the leaking of a stack of papal documents last year demonstrated.
One of the key rivalries is between the former and current secretaries of state, Angelo Sodano and his successor, Tarcisio Bertone, which means the Italians are unlikely to vote in a bloc. Sodano, 78, is not considered papabile, but he is still extremely powerful, not least because he is dean of the college of cardinals, the position Joseph Ratzinger occupied in 2005.
Though the Italians remain the largest single group, their influence is greatly reduced. In 1903 they were 38 of 62 electors; today they have 29 of 120. Europeans have 62 electors, Latin America 21, North America 14, Africa 11, Asia 10, the Middle East one, and Oceania one, Sydney Archbishop George Pell.
Of the Italian candidates, the top-ranked is Angelo Scola, 71, whom Benedict appointed Archbishop of Milan, a traditional sign of favour. The son of a truck driver, Scola has argued the church must relate better to the modern world, but he is said to have many enemies in the Curia. If Benedict chooses to wield an influence, his chances rise.
The early favourite is Peter Turkson, 64, of Ghana, who studied in the United States, spent years in Rome, and is much loved in Africa. Thus he has credentials among Western cardinals, the Curia, and Africans. He is praised for his ''human touch'' and is an accomplished media performer.
Another African name much mentioned in 2005 and still a strong candidate is Francis Arinze of Nigeria, but at 80 his time might have passed.
The outstanding Latin American is Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, 70. He is theologically conservative but a passionate advocate of social justice, who has described poverty and injustice as ''the real weapons of mass destruction''.
Canada's Marc Ouellet, 68, is a leading figure in the Curia as head of the Congregation for Bishops, sometimes rated the third-top job behind Pope and secretary of state. Seen as a theological carbon copy of Benedict, his years teaching in Colombia might earn him South American support.
Conclaves have tended to avoid younger cardinals for fear of a long papacy but Benedict's precedent may change that. If that proves true, then Luis Tagle of Manila, at 55 the youngest and probably most progressive cardinal, is in contention.
George Pell is not considered likely. Credited with helping get Benedict elected in 2005, his influence seems to have waned and his group has more prominent candidates, but he could be a (white) smokey.
Whoever it is, do not expect a reformist or progressive Pope. John Paul II and Benedict have stacked the college of cardinals with conservatives. There will be no movement on women, contraception or celibacy.