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Will the cardinals go off the European grid to choose a new pope?

Maurizio Brambatti / EPA

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is among the non-Europeans who are considered possible papal candidates.

It's been 35 years since an Italian pope has ruled the Catholic Church, and some Vatican watchers believe the conclave that starts Tuesday could be the first to elect a pontiff from outside Europe.

While the Italians control a quarter of the votes, recent scandals suggest that they might be too beset by deep divisions to unite early around one candidate from their home turf.

The church's influence in Europe is on the wane, and its biggest area of growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, leading some to suggest that it might be time to look beyond the traditional countries for a pope with global appeal.

"The Catholic Church has moved far beyond the notion that any one nationality has a peculiar aptitude for the Office of Peter," said NBC News Vatican analyst George Weigel, author of "Evangelical Catholicism."

"The secondary reason why this is a wide-open field from which a non-European candidate may emerge is that the Catholic Church is in serious difficulty throughout western Europe and in parts of central and eastern Europe.

"Even stalwart Poland is beginning to show some troubling signs of the influence of secularism."

Catholic Center for Media via AP

Cardinal Robert Sarah is from Guinea but also has a strong Vatican background.

A number of non-Europeans keep showing up on Vaticanologists' lists of papabili, those cardinals thought to have the right stuff: Marc Ouellet of Canada, Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, Robert Sarah of Guinea.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said that when insiders talk about crossing the European borders, the conversation often ends up in Africa, "where the church is growing, where it's dynamic and where it's a success in vocations."

"The church looks good in Africa," he said. "The counter-argument is: The church in Africa is doing fine. We need someone to deal with the church in Europe, North America and Latin America, where it's in trouble."

Reese said he's "not sure that geography is the answer" to the Vatican's problems, but at the same time he sees the appeal of a pope from afar.

"It would certainly send a message that this is a global church, this is not a European church any more," he said.

With just three days to go before the conclave, there is no indication that the cardinals are rallying around any one candidate, including the Italians.

Weigel said many of the top non-European candidates have impressive Roman credentials:

Cardinal Marc Ouellet: The former archbishop of Quebec City, he heads the Congregation for Bishops, has worked in two Vatican departments and has taught at the Lateran University. He also has Latin American experience, having taught there, and has confronted an "aggressively secular environment" in Quebec. But some will question whether the scholarly pastor can reform the curia, the administrative apparatus of the Vatican.

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer: The archbishop of Sao Paolo, Brazil, worked for the conclave's senior cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, at the Congregation of Bishops under Pope John Paul II. Now he has the top job in the country with the most Catholics. He lacks charisma, though, and many cardinals feel they need someone with personality.

Cardinal Robert Sarah: Appointed archbishop of Conakry, Guinea, when he was just 34, Sarah now heads the pontifical council Cor Unum, which is the Vatican's parallel to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Weigel noted, however, that Rome has often not been as friendly as it could have been to African church leaders.

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Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle has lots of energy and charisma but might be seen as too young.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan: The archbishop of New York's personality could be a double-edged sword. "No member of the College of Cardinals lights up a room like [Dolan]," Weigel said, but skeptics could find him too effervescent. Plus, there is a longstanding prejudice against so-called "superpower popes."

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle: The passion and emotion of Manila's top Catholic could be attractive to electors looking beyond Italy for a candidate. His youth -- he's just 56 -- could go against him. "He could be pope for 40 years. If that's the case, he better be a great one," Reese said.

Other geographic outliers who have been mentioned and might get some votes in early balloting include Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka, Thomas Collins of Toronto, Sean O'Malley of Boston and Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

An oft-mentioned cardinal, Peter Turkson of Ghana, is favored in the Italian press, which Weigel said historically means his candidacy is over even before voting starts.

Reese said regardless of how many worthy candidates there are, he wouldn't bet on a pontiff from another continent.

"The odds are against it when more than half the College of Cardinals is from Europe," he said. "They always begin by looking at the Italians."


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The cardinals will fill out ballots in the Sistine Chapel until all 77 ballots -- two-thirds plus one of the cardinal electors -- reach a consensus. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.