ROME — Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement Monday that he will resign set off a flurry of speculation about his replacement, who will be called upon to guide the Roman Catholic Church through an increasingly secular era in which the church has lost the certainty it claimed for centuries.
Some Vatican observers predicted that the growing importance of the developing world to the church could weigh on the decision and, perhaps, lead to the choice of a non-European pope. But the voting bloc of cardinals coming from Europe remains sizable and influential, analysts said.
‘‘It’s a premature question, though it’s clear that two non-Italian popes in a row have broken the notion that the pope has to be Italian,’’ said Alberto Melloni, a historian of the Roman Catholic Church and director of the John XXIII Center in Bologna, a liberal Catholic research institute. ‘‘But the church is not the Austro-Hungarian Empire where leaders alternate between countries. The pope is first of all bishop of Rome, and then the leader of the universal church.’’
Vatican experts argued that vision, rather than geography, would likely determine who would replace Benedict and that the ability to communicate with a distracted world would be high on the list of desirable qualities. As nearly all of the cardinals eligible to vote were appointed by the current pope or his predecessor, John Paul II, it is likely that the next pope will share strong continuity in terms of vision and doctrine.
Pope Benedict appointed 67 of the 118 cardinals who will appoint his successor, and 37 of them are from Europe, which remains the most substantial voting bloc and potentially the most influential.
With the College of Cardinals in many ways reflecting the views of the pope and his predecessor, some Vatican observers suggested that the future pope would be someone with similar theological positions, such as Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada; or Cardinal Cristoph Schoborn of Vienna.
John Allen, a Vatican analyst and biographer of Benedict XVI, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, could be a contender.
Centuries-old tradition calls for new popes to be elected in secrecy, so there are unlikely to be many signals on the identity of the 266th pontiff until white smoke wafts over St. Peter’s Square.
The cardinals are to be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel until the choice is made.
Only the 117 of the 210 members of College of Cardinals under the age of 80 have the right to vote in the conclave, which will assemble in the Basilica of Saint Peter after Feb. 28. The Vatican said Monday it wants to elect a new pope by Easter, which falls on March 31.
Acknowledgment of the growth of the importance of developing countries could be a factor in the choice.
Andrew Chesnut, a scholar on Latin American religions at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that the church faced big challenges in the region, even as Vatican leaders contemplate shifting demographics, with an estimated half of the world’s Catholics now living in Latin America.
“The smart move for the Vatican for the future of the world church, which lies in the global south, would be a Latin American or African pope,’’ Chesnut said.
African hopes for the papacy center on Peter Turkson of Ghana, a charismatic and popular senior church leader who is in his mid-60s.
When Turkson was asked in 2009 at a Vatican news conference about the possibility of a black pope, he replied: ‘‘An African pope? Why not?’’ according to the Catholic News Service.