Who will succeed Pope Francis as leader of the Roman Catholic Church? Will the next pope come from Africa, Asia or again Europe or America?
Of course, we wish Pope Francis all the best, but if time on earth is not on his side, the right question to ask is: who will be the next Pope?
Before we reveal our eight candidates, we should first consider the job description and what qualities the candidates must meet. First of all, candidates need to be male (in contemporary language: a cisman) and baptised. So no popess. Sorry, female readers, there is nothing we can do about that.
You can read in this article what the important elements of choice are (paragraph 6).
Pope’s candidates for the next conclave
This is our choice, based on our own analysis and decades of experience in reporting on the Vatican. The list is alphabetical.
- Marc Ouellet
- Pietro Parolin
- Óscar Rodriguez Maradiaga
- Robert Sarah
- Christoph Schönborn
- Antonio Tagle
- Peter Turkson
- Matteo Zuppi
Marc Ouellet: runner-up with limited time
- Country: Canada
- Year of Birth: 1944
- Why: many voters at last conclave (2013), pastoral and curial experience
- Why not: limited charisma, old age
Marc Ouellet is one of the cardinals who is close to the Pope. Literally, as is shown by the Pope’s agenda, which is published daily by the press office.
The Canadian prelate lives in the Vatican. That is not the only reason. If you live in a village like the Vatican City, for that is what it is by size of population, you quickly run into each other. It is mainly because of his position as head of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
The first position means that he has a big finger in the pie as to who will become a bishop, especially in the western world. Every year, hundreds of such appointments take place. His second top job gives him a strong position in South America, an important Catholic continent. That makes him possible as a candidate of both Americas.
He will have to relinquish both jobs soon, because bishops generally retire at the age of 75. Age is not really in Ouellet’s favour.
However, his relations with all continents in the catholic world and his soft way of operating (there are no known scandals or questionable statements made by him) make him a candidate. He has no great charisma, but a friendly and empathetic character. What is definitely in his favour is that in the 2013 conclave Ouellet received the third most votes from his colleagues.
Read also our article on what happens when the pope dies or steps down
Pietro Parolin: power figure behind the scenes
- Country: Italy
- Year of Birth: 1955
- Why: second-in-command of the Vatican, large influence base
- Why not: no real pastoral experience, (too) young, feared
Pietro Parolin is the second in command of the Vatican. He occupies that position automatically as Secretary of State. This gives him an enormous position of power, but it is not a position that makes him popular with everybody. He is despised by Cardinal Joseph Zen (Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong), for example, because he thinks Parolin is playing a cynical power game by dealing with the Chinese authorities.
Parolin serves thirty years in diplomatic service: at nunciatures around the world and at the Holy See, as the highest administrative apparatus in the Vatican is called. He is certainly a diplomat. As nuncio in Venezuela when Chavez was president, he kept relations on track, for example.
He ensured that diplomatic relations with Vietnam were strengthened. Parolin also facilitated the improved relations between ‘Catholic-Communist’ Cuba and the United States under Obama. As the spearhead of the organisation, Parolin has absolutely a chance of becoming pope.
Parolin, who was made Secretary of State by Francis, follows the Pope’s line entirely, is loyal and discreet, which could not be said of his predecessor (Bertone). Parolin comes from the Italian region of Veneto, a typical Catholic stronghold, which has produced many prelates.
His almost total lack of pastoral experience could hurt his chances. Most cardinals are strongly involved in their own (arch)diocese, and thus have a link to everyday religious life. That is what Parolin lacks, and that is an experience that is expected of a pope.
But history shows that secretaries of state can become popes. It happened once in the last century. Eugenio Pacelli was Secretary of State between 1930 and 1939, and Pope Pius XII between 1939 and 1958.
Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga: fingers in the pie
- Country: Honduras
- Year of birth: 1942
- Why: spider in the web, top of mind
- Why not: too ambitious, ambiguous judgement of management
The odds for Rodriguez Maradiaga are getting smaller every year. He is approaching 80 years of age (although no age limit exists for being elected pope). But if not for his age, the Honduran cardinal certainly has chances. It is a miracle in itself that the first Honduran cardinal in history, who therefore comes from an undistinguished country, can finish so high.
He has a good mix of pastoral and managerial skills. He taught at the school of the Salesians, a religious order of which he is a member. He has been a bishop for more than 40 years. He is preeminent in the Latin American Church. Between 2007 and 2015, he was the head of the international Caritas, a powerful aid organisation.
Rodriguez Maradiaga has been trusted by both Pope Benedict XVI and Francis. That in itself is an achievement, because the political line of both popes is very different. Pope Francis has given the Honduran a central position at the Holy See by appointing him chief of the newly created advisory body of cardinals in 2013. That role was reaffirmed in 2020.
The Honduran has been accused of financial mismanagement in his country. This may have to do with his criticism of the Honduran president at the time (2010). In 2001, Rodriguez Maradiaga issued the bold statement that the North American abuse crisis within the Catholic Church would have been a Jewish conspiracy.
Robert Sarah: the Abraham of conservatives
- Country: Guinea
- Year of Birth: 1945
- Why: clearly conservative profile
- Why not: clearly conservative profile
If you want a conservative pope you automatically end up with Robert Sarah. He does not get along with pope Francis. On at least two occasions, the two men clashed bitterly. In 2016, Sarah, as head of the department that deals with liturgical matters, didn’t like the fact that Francis washed a Muslim woman’s feet. This happened during the traditional foot washing on Good Friday.
In 2020, Sarah published a book stating that celibacy must not be compromised at all. The book was released precisely at a time when Francis had to decide on the thorny issue of celibacy. Extra spicy: the book was initially written together with pope emeritus Benedict.
Sarah is a fighter. Since he became Archbishop of Conakry at the age of 34, he fought for the independence of the church from the autocratic regime and despite the persecution of priests and lay people, he did not shy away from making speeches against political power.
In 2001, he was brought to Rome, where he became Secretary (second in command) of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, a busy department dealing mainly with ‘developing countries’. In 2010 he was appointed the first cardinal in the history of the Church of Guinea.
He sees a special role for Africa, which “could become the spearhead of the Church’s resistance to Western decadence”. He hates gender ideology. “In some African countries, ministries for gender theory have been set up in exchange for economic support. This policy is all the more repugnant because the majority of the African population is defenceless, at the mercy of fanatical Western ideologues”. He compared contemporary western views on homosexuality and abortion as well as “Islamist fanaticism” to Nazism and communism.
This certainly makes him the spearhead of the conservatives. He was removed from his job six months after his 75th birthday in 2021. It is the duty of every bishop to offer his resignation to the pope for reaching retirement age. If the pope accepts it immediately, it is usually a sign that the pope wants to get rid of you.
Christoph Schönborn can afford to criticise
- Country: Austria
- Year of Birth: 1945
- Why: political-religious middle position
- Why not: not elected twice before, European
Schönborn was one of the favourites during the conclaves of the 21st century (2005 and 2013), even though he never received many votes in practice. He owes his popularity to the middle position he occupies. He is seen as an intelligent theologian with strong traditional views, but also with a balanced reforming spirit.
He is known for his tolerant views and his openness to dialogue. For example, he had words of praise for his compatriot Conchita Wurst, a self-proclaimed drag queen (female appearance with beard), who won the European song contest in 2014.
In 2021, the Archbishop of Vienna criticised the Vatican’s ban earlier that year on blessing homosexual relationships. “A mother will not deny her children a sincerely requested blessing. Neither will the mother church. Whether a church blessing is always the right form of expression is something that still needs to be given careful consideration.”
Luis Antonio Tagle: goodie two-shoes of the class
- Country: Philippines
- Year of birth: 1957
- Why: dynamic, from ‘grow market’ Asia, in line with current pope, strong political profile
- Why not: too young, too ambitious
You can say what you like about the Roman Catholic Church, but not that it is a closed white bastion. Strong candidates come from the non-Western world. One of the most brilliant people is this young cardinal from the Philippines, the most Catholic country in Asia.
Asia is the future of the Catholic Church, that by the way is also the continent where Jesus was born. Europe and also America are engaged in a relentless move towards secularism. Africa, though a growing Catholic territory, is a problematic continent.
After having been Archbishop of Manila, Tagle started a shining career in the Vatican. This led him to two important positions. First, he was made director of Caritas internationalis, the most important Catholic relief organisation in the world. With that, you make friends everywhere.
In 2019, Tagle was appointed head of the important Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. This department, which was once called Propaganda Fide, deals with most of the so-called developing countries. Bishop appointments in Africa and Asia are also prepared by Tagle and not by Ouellet (chief of the Congregation for Bishops).
Tagle has ties with both the United States, where he studied for seven years, and China, where his mother comes from. He therefore has a strong political profile. Tagle gets on extremely well with pope Francis. They have more or less the same mind set. Whoever wants the line of Francis to be continued after his death or abdication will find Tagle a good one. The disadvantage of being the teacher’s favourite at school is that it can evoke jealousy from the other pupils…
Another barrier is his age. Tagle is about the age when Karol Wojtyla became pope. The Polish prelate stood at the helm for almost 28 years and thus left his mark (a bit too much, some say) on the papacy.
Read official information on all statistics about the College of Cardinals.
Peter Turkson risks exiting the conclave as a cardinal
- Country: Ghana
- Year of Birth: 1948
- Why: strong on interreligious matters, chief of the Human Development dept.
- Why not: barrier of first black pope
Update: on December 23, 2021 Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Turkson as head of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The resignation is surprising, even though it comes at the end of his five-year term (January 1, 2022). The resignation has probably to do with an internal investigation into the depetament, which had begun in June 2021.
Since 2016, Turkson has been a man to be reckoned with, when he was appointed by pope Francis as the head of the newly-formed ‘Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development’ (an amalgamation of four departments). It is a ‘soft’ department, it has little money and jobs to distribute, but it is a curial department with a future as long as Francis’ line continues.
Turkson was no stranger to the world before 2016 either. At the age of 55, he became a cardinal, the first from Ghana in history. A few years later, he became head of the Congregation for Justice, a department that was later absorbed into the Human Development department. His approach to interreligious dialogue is very strong, partly because he himself comes from a mixed family of faith. His mother was from the Methodist Church, so Protestant, and his father Roman Catholic. He had a paternal uncle who was Muslim.
Turkson has long been known to be papabile, as is the Italian term for someone who has a chance of being Pope (from the Italian word ‘papa’ = pope). It may have something to do with the fact that the (non specialized) press pushes for a black pope as that would look modern.
That is a dangerous stance. A popular expression in Italian is: “Who enters the conclave as a pope, exits as a cardinal” i.e. favourites often stumble. At the beginning of the millennium, Francis Arinze (Nigeria, 1932) was frequently mentioned as a papabile, but received no votes at all in the 2005 conclave.
Like many African prelates, Turkson is quite conservative in moral matters. He is certainly a critical of neo-liberalism. Cardinal Turkson has worked out a proposal to reform the international financial system by creating a kind of global government authority and a World Bank that take into account the interests of all developing countries. He criticises the current structure of the International Monetary Fund and other institutions.
Matteo Zuppi: wet behind the ears
- Country: Italy
- Year of Birth: 1955
- Why: progressive, strong priesthood, Italian candidate
- Why not: too young, too unknown, few achievements
With Italians making up some 20 per cent of the College of Cardinals, the Italian bloc is to be reckoned with. Should they want a compatriot as next pope (but nationality is not a decisive element), Zuppi could score highly.
Zuppi, too, is a man of Francis, since he owes his position to him (the only one of our candidates to be made cardinal by Francis). The Bishop of Bologna is seen as a vibrant priest. For the rest, his curriculum vitae is rather thin. You could say that he is still a bit wet behind the ears. That is my play on words (the Italian word ‘zuppi’ means something like soggy or wet).
He is close to the progressive lay movement of Sant’Egidio, which started in the 1960s in Rome, Zuppi’s birthplace, and is now a rather powerful club inside the catholic church. Despite his progressive views, he is not afraid to celebrate the so-called Tridentine Mass of ultra-conservative catholics. This mass, entirely in Latin, dates back to the 16th century, and was taken over by the new mass order in the second half of the 20th century.
Read everything about the pope election in conclave.
(Un)certain about the next pope
Papal elections are often surprising. The favourites of the last conclave (2013) missed out on the top prize. The only thing that is certain is that the next pope will be number 267 in the line of succession (number 1 is Peter).
We will keep the list up to date and, if necessary, remove candidates from our top list and include others. We are, of course, open to comments.
Finally, some key points on the subject of who will be the next Pope:
Who can be elected pope?
Candidates need to be male and baptised. For the last centuries, the cardinals have been choosing the next pope from among themselves. There are about 120 electors (cardinals younger than 80 years of age).
Will the next pope be black?
About 12 per cent of the College of Cardinals have a black skin color. A black pope is therefore possible. Peter Turkson from Ghana has the best chance.
How is the next pope chosen?
The pope is elected by cardinals in conclave, i.e. in the enclosed space of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The candidate with a 2/3 majority becomes pope. The voting process generally takes 1-2 days.
Who are the leading cardinal candidates?
The main candidates who stand a chance of becoming the next pope are: Marc Ouellet and Óscar Rodriguez Maradiaga (America), Pietro Parolin, Christoph Schönborn and Matteo Zuppi (Europe), Robert Sarah and Peter Turkson (Africa) and Antonio Tagle (Asia).