The seriousness of Pope John Paul II's medical condition has raised unavoidable questions about who will succeed the 84-year-old Pontiff... and what issues that man will have to grapple with. John Paul II is the third longest-serving pope in history. He was born in Poland and appointed to his position in 1978 -- a time when Communism dominated his homeland and most of Eastern Europe. Today, Roman Catholicism enjoys a revival in many of the countries where religion was outlawed throughout most of the pope's life. As VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, meeting the needs of eastern European Catholics is just one of many challenges the next pope will face… whenever he is elected.

The Church has actually seen its greatest growth in recent years in Asia, Africa, and Latin America-parts of the world that don't have a distinctly western European outlook on religion and society, and where poverty and violence can be quite common. Sixty-five percent of all Catholics now live outside the so-called First World, and according to Lawrence Cunningham, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, serving these Catholics is going to require a pope with a global perspective.

It would certainly bode well for a future pope if he were a polyglot, if he could speak more than one language; that he had traveled extensively in other parts of the world. Someone who would be sympathetic to the need to articulate the faith in a language and a theology that would be appropriate for people who don't necessarily come out of a western European background.

Some of the regions where Catholicism is growing most rapidly have also seen an increase in the number of Muslim converts. Islam, like Christianity, is a missionary faith, and Lawrence Cunningham says in parts of Africa where both religions have been evangelizing heavily, there has been some conflict. A new pope, he says, will have to be mindful of this fact. But Professor Cunningham also says the person who succeeds Pope John Paul II will have to deal with the reality that Africa isn't the only place where Islam is on the rise.

I mean, what happens when you have a traditionally Catholic country like Italy, where the birthrate among Muslims is five times greater than the birthrate among Catholics? What's that going to mean in 25 years? What's it going to mean to historic institutions in a country like Italy? What I'm talking about is awareness of that fact.

Lawrence Cunningham says the person who follows the current pope will have to continue what will undoubtedly be a fundamental part of John Paul II's legacy-and that is his inter-faith dialogue. The current Pontiff has done more than any pope before him to reconcile Christianity with Judaism. Professor Cunningham says a new pope will have to extend that conversation to other faiths. But he also says the new pope ought to give local bishops a greater voice in the management of their own dioceses - something Pope John Paul II hasn't always allowed them to have. Church leaders called for a more local approach to the faith forty years ago, during the Second Vatican Council. But Lawrence Cunningham says it's a goal that hasn't been met.

Let me just give you one not-so-trivial example: Decisions about the English language liturgy, now that we have a vernacular liturgy, those things are increasingly centralized in Rome. Now why do we want to have people in Rome discussing issues of liturgical language there, rather than in the local environment, with native-speakers and so on?

When the College of Cardinals finally meets to elect a new pope-whenever that may be-the person who is chosen will, in all likelihood, be a Cardinal himself. The last time the College of Cardinals elected someone who was not from among their ranks was in 1378, when they elected the Archbishop of Bari to become Pope Urban VI. Right now, the overwhelming majority of Cardinals are Italian-but Americans make up the second greatest number. So will an American be the next pope?

The answer is no, not as long as we're the big kid in the world playground.

Lawrence Cunningham says the feeling among Catholic leaders is that America's influence in the world is already strong enough-and the country shouldn't have the Church, too. I'm Maura Farrelly.