Until very recent times, only Vatican insiders and members of the College of Cardinals who were actually eligible to vote in the papal conclaves possessed sufficient knowledge to identify who the viable candidates were to become the latest in a long line of successors to St. Peter.

When the world entered the age of modern communications (radio and telegraph), Catholics worldwide awaited the conclave's decision with active interest and learned the new pope's identity shortly after it was announced. Catholics rejoiced in the selection of the new pope even though most did not have firsthand knowledge of the man who was chosen.

The age of instantaneous information has changed all that. Thanks to 24/7 television news channels and the Internet, the world is "tuned in" as never before to a papal conclave and the short list of cardinals who, according to conventional wisdom, are the leading candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

It isn't only Catholics who are taking the time to study the biographies of the papal possibilities. Members of other Christian denominations, adherents of other religions and people who have no religious affiliation at all have taken an interest as never before in a papal conclave. Just about everyone has his or her favorite choice to become the next pope.

Naturally, many U.S. Catholics are hoping for the election of a "hometown favorite," either Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston or Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who are both viewed as contenders, although long shots. Failing the election of a pope from the U.S., many Americans would welcome a candidate from somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, Cardinal Odilio Scherer of Brazil, or the Third World, Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana. It's possible, of course, that the new pope will be someone who has not even been mentioned in pre-conclave speculation. After all, the election of the great Pope John Paul II, who came from Poland, was not foreseen by many in 1978.

The level of interest in the papal succession process is a sign of the Catholic Church's continued importance and worldwide influence. The pope is the head of a church that has more than a billion members, spread out over every nation; when he speaks, the world listens. No religious leader is as well known throughout the world, speaks with such strong moral authority or commands the same level of respect as the pope.