The Synod of Bishops, a summit of roughly 300 prelates from around the world the popes have now summoned 28 times since it was created after Vatican II in 1965, are always a bit like the Iowa Caucuses of the Catholic Church.

It’s just about the only time, at least in the early phases of the race, that all the “candidates” to become the next pope are on display for an extended period of time, which means it tends to be a moment when Church-watchers get into the traditional parlor game of speculation about what, and who, might come next.

Francis will turn 82 in December, and it’s inevitable that people are at least pondering “what if?” scenarios.

It’s a myth to assert that one can never see the next pope coming. In the last six papal elections, a real surprise only prevailed twice — Angelo Roncalli as John XXII in 1958, and Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II in 1978. 

Over the last month, I’ve discussed this question with some three dozen people, sometimes one-on-one and sometimes in groups, from a variety of different cultural and geographic settings. What follows is a kind of statistical average of three names that seem to surface most often.

1. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Italian, 63
Parolin is pretty much everybody’s consistent “safe” pick. He’s in sync with Pope Francis, so he’d represent continuity with this papacy, but he’s also a career Vatican diplomat, making him a good bet for a more cautious and calmer version of the boss. 

2. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Austrian, 73
A grand irony is that Schönborn’s main problem as a papal candidate right now is that after spending two decades as the dauphin of Ratzinger, potentially making it difficult to attract liberal support, the Austrian scion of a family that’s produced two cardinals and 19 archbishops, bishops, priests and religious sisters so far, he might now have a hard time attracting conservatives because of his backing for Francis, especially on “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).  

Yet precisely that background might allow him to cross traditional divides, and anyway, as a genuine Dominican intellectual, many of his fellow cardinals just think he may be the brightest bulb they’ve got.

3. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, American, 74
Although O’Malley’s age might appear to be a problem, the last two popes were elected at 78 and 76, respectively, so clearly it’s not a deal-breaker. Otherwise, the American Capuchin has a lot going for him. 

Because of his background and languages, he’s not seen as excessively “American.” He’s got a reputation as a leader and reformer on the clerical sexual abuse scandals, and he also has strong appeal to popular Italian sentiment because he reminds them of Padre Pio, the celebrated Capuchin stigmatic and healer. 

Further, O’Malley is a good combination of a Francis loyalist who’s nevertheless sensitive to concerns of those a bit disaffected, which could position him to build a two-thirds vote in a conclave.

Full story at Angelus News.