It's become fashionable for Africa to get a mention. One African so far has entered the list of papabili: Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson, 64, from Ghana, though he may have eliminated himself when he presided over the screening last year of a controversial video suggesting Muslims were soon to take over Europe through demographics.
Finally, unlike last time, North Americans are getting mentioned, notably Timothy Dolan, 63, archbishop of New York. Don't bet on it. The world's only superpower is not going to get a pope. (Spoiler alert for Americans focused on hot-button social issues: You're not about to get a pontiff who tolerates abortion, homosexuality, or euthanasia for people who want to end suffering in old age. Radio reporters calling from the United States were somehow shocked when I told them that in 2005, but that's the way it was then and still is now.)
However, America's northern neighbor might conceivably produce a pope: Marc Ouellet, 68, head of the Vatican's department of bishops, a conservative ally of Pope Benedict, and former archbishop of Quebec City.
With luck, this year's reporters and commentators will get a closer look at the potential candidates and their thoughts than we did, back in 2005. After Pope John Paul II's funeral, I had looked forward to the novemdiales, a nine-day period before the conclave during which the cardinals are traditionally free to wander Rome and speak with whomever they want. It was a chance to hear what ideas would dominate the conclave itself.
It was not to be.
Ratzinger, as dean of the College of Cardinals, presided over preparations for the conclave. On April 9, a day after the funeral, the Vatican announced a news blackout. Ratzinger had persuaded everyone to stop talking, cardinals quietly told me: no interviews, no open discussion of pre-conclave meetings -- no nothing except homilies at masses celebrating the virtues of John Paul II.
The prohibition left the public stage to Ratzinger himself. On the morning the conclave opened, he delivered a sermon to the cardinals that amounted to a combination keynote and self-advertisement. In it, he warned of a "dictatorship of relativism … that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure." He added that the church must withstand "tides of trends and the latest novelties." Some saw the speech as a fortification of true faith; others as a clear effort to stifle debate. Ratzinger won in the second ballot and was confirmed by acclamation.
In any case, I'm guessing there is probably one elector whom I interviewed before the 2005 blackout who will be giving no interviews this time: Cardinal Roger Mahony, 76, ex-archbishop of Los Angeles, who is beset by new revelations that he hid incidents of priestly child abuse from the police. Questions about pedophilia alone might scare the Vatican from letting the cardinals spout off too much.
At the end of this month, Ratzinger will disappear into Castel Gandolfo, on a lake near Rome, implicitly taking with him any possible influence on the forthcoming election. But his shadow will stretch all the way to the Sistine Chapel; he appointed just over half the cardinals who will elect his successor. And he wouldn't have picked them if they didn't agree with him in some measure.
But let's hope the cardinals open their thinking to the journalists waiting at St. Peter's and to the world. If they do, it'll tell us at least one thing for sure: that Ratzinger's influence is quickly waning and the race is wide open.