As the world's one billion Catholics continue to mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, many are contemplating the challenges his successor will face... and the issues he ought to address. John Paul II had a traditional - some might say "conservative" - approach to internal Church affairs throughout his pontificate. But as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, even as they praise John Paul II's legacy, many American Catholics are calling on his successor to make some radical changes within the Church.

The question of interest for the international media right now is whether the Church will elect its first non-European pope in fifteen hundred years. Three-fourths of the world's Catholics now live outside Europe, and experts say there's a very real possibility the next Pope could be an African or Latin American. But wherever he comes from, he's going to have to deal with a priest shortage - especially in the West - that some American Catholics believe has reached a crisis point. Father Mark Massa directs the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. He says the Church has been dealing with the clerical shortage in so-called "First World" countries like the United States by importing priests from the Third World.

As a short-term answer, that's not a bad answer. But there's a lot of problems inherent in that answer. That is, you're bringing in people who were not raised in this culture, that have a different set of cultural abilities. That's not a long-term answer to what you're going to do about who's going to staff parishes.

Many lay Catholics agree. Waiting for her child outside a Catholic school in New York, Kathleen Harris has some ideas on how to fix the problem of not enough masses and not enough priests.

I think that if he would allow married people to be priests - which I don't think that should be a problem - that that would help a lot.

Allowing priests to marry isn't the only solution being suggested by American Catholics. Josephine Lauriello says the next Pope ought to reconsider the status of women in the Church.

The future of the Church - and the past - has really been tied to the women. And I guess… I don't know if the time is right for them to be priests, but I think there is some role that they could take - and they already are, as Eucharistic ministers and whatever.

These two women are not unusual, according to a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press. Sixty percent of the American Catholics surveyed said the Church needed to change its policies so that women could become priests and priests would be allowed to marry. That's up 20% from 1979, the year John Paul II was elected Pope, when a Gallup poll showed just 40% favored the ordination of women. Even so, Fordham University's Mark Massa says American Catholics and their leaders are actually more traditional than Catholics in other Western countries.

My gosh, Holland, Germany, France… you know, Catholics in those countries are far ahead of American Catholics in terms of rethinking through how the Church should restructure itself. I mean, the Dutch bishops, to use the invidious, political 'left-right' thing, the Dutch bishops are far to the left of the American bishops. This is not a North American thing. It's certainly a First-World thing.

But whether the next pope comes from the First-World or not, Mark Massa says he's going to have to consider the alternative methods for dealing with the clerical shortage being suggested by First-World Catholics.

Because these are the kinds of issues that the North American Catholic Church has, clearly, I think, the next Pope will have this on his agenda. Because the First World, and specifically the United States, is simply too important to let collapse. I mean, it is massively in the best interests of the Vatican to have a powerful, North American Catholic Church.

That being said, Father Massa predicts the Church will allow priests to marry before it ordains women. Married priests are actually already performing Masses in the Catholic Church. If a Protestant minister who is married decides to convert to Catholicism, he is allowed to join the Catholic clergy - and he doesn't have to renounce his marriage in order to do so. I'm Maura Farrelly.

Significant economic disparities continue to separate blacks and whites in urban America, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the National Urban League, the nation's oldest and largest organization dedicated to social and economic empowerment for black Americans. The new report, State of Black America 2005, calls on the White House and the U-S Congress to set new national priorities and policies to reverse the country's widening racial inequalities. VOA's Rosanne Skirble has more.

After a decade in which black Americans began to see a drop in the unemployment rate and gains in income, the African American community today is marked by economic stagnation. The backbone of the Urban League report is a so-called equality index, a statistical measurement of disparities between blacks and whites. The Philadelphia-based research group Global Insight compiled the data, which considered gaps in wages, housing, education, health, social justice and civic participation. Global Insight managing director James Diffley says according to the index the overall well being of blacks showed no gains from the previous year.

That is, black Americans' status in a measurable sense is 27 percent below that of whites in America. Median income for black Americans was only 61 percent that of white Americans in our index. There are more than twice as many black Americans, 24 percent in fact, living below the poverty line, than there are white Americans (living below the poverty line).

The report says blacks are also twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts.

This information is sobering, but these are the facts. That's National Urban League President Marc Morial. Speaking at the Urban League annual meeting in Washington he warned that a predominately white affluent class puts blacks and other Americans at risk.

And it will soon begin to leave middle class America behind, urban America behind, and it will leave the families of Hispanic and Latin American citizens behind also. I think we must embrace a shared view, that economic suffering anywhere threatens economic prosperity everywhere. State of Black America 2005 makes a number of recommendations to reduce the widening economic gap. These include extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raising the minimum wage, increasing business development in African American urban communities, and expanding job training.

Mr. Morial also announced that his organization had sent a letter to the White House and Congress urging the creation of a special non-partisan commission to study economic opportunity and business growth in the United States We need members from both parties, both houses of Congress to get together to realize that it is their responsibility to provide economic opportunity for all of our citizens. Because this is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Mr. Morial also challenged black Americans to play a more active role in civic life. "If we continue to make our voices heard," said the National Urban League president, "we will not only stop the backslide, but start a new crusade to move this nation forward toward a shared goal of economic opportunity and prosperity for all Americans."