There has been a lot of speculation, led by the BBC, CNN and bookmakers, about who will take over from Pope Benedict XVI as head of the Roman Catholic Church since Benedict stepped down Thursday.

Will it be a Latin American or an African, since these are the areas where the church is actually growing, not shrinking, the media asked breathlessly?

Or how about an American, a people’s pope after the intellectual Benedict, or someone who will be in touch with the reality of modern life, not one blinded by the dust of ancient dogma?

National newspapers have joined in to promote the cause of their favorite sons, Argentina pushing Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Brazil claiming that Cardinal Odilo Scherer would be best, the Philippines supporting Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the United States backing New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Africans giving their votes to Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria or Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana.

Bookmaker Paddy Power puts Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola in pole position with odds of 11-4, pursued by Turkson at 7-2 and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouillet at 9-2. As a joke, the bookmaker adds the pop singer Bono at 1,000-1. Japan has no cardinal.

Such betting is harmless fun, but it hides important points. There is real politicking going on behind the scenes, and the 118 cardinals under 80 years old who will elect the pope are not amenable to popular debate. More than half of them are Europeans, even though Europeans are a shrinking 25 percent of the 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide. Italians are pushing for one of their number and Italians have the most votes, 28 of them, followed by the U.S. with 11.

Perhaps they are right: A cynical worldly Italian might be more understanding of the shabby sinful real world than Benedict was.

More important, the chances of refreshing change are limited by the electors. Benedict was the most intelligent man to be pope in centuries, probably the best theologian and one of the sharpest thinkers in the world today, a wonderful writer most recently with an eloquent three- volume life of Jesus, and personally charming; but as both cardinal and pope, he was burdened by his lofty view of the responsibilities of office.

He left a church that is both flawed and wounded by his leadership. Its recovery will not be easy, not least because he and his Polish predecessor John Paul II appointed all of the cardinals who will choose the next pope, all men, mostly cast in Benedict’s stern image, correct in doctrine, utterly opposed to contraception, abortion, gay marriage, married priests, women priests, all things that much of the rest of the world takes for granted.

Years ago I personally experienced the charm yet steely uptight personality of Benedict. I was editor of The Universe, the U.K. Catholic newspaper then selling more than 120,000 copies an issue. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, as Benedict was known then, was visiting Cambridge University. He was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor body to the unholy Inquisition, and had won a reputation as “God’s Rottweiler” for his dedication to preserving the purity of Catholic doctrine from questioning theologians.

I pleaded for a chance to talk with him, even if not for a formal interview as I had talked to umpteen cardinals in Rome and round the world. He refused. But he did allow me to take his photograph, and tamely agreed to go to the rooftop for a better shot, smiling but steadfastly resisting anything beyond innocuous small talk.

Later he said Mass in the Catholic chaplaincy, and dressed in full ecclesiastical fig, with mitre and crozier, for a workaday weekday Mass. I was appalled as I was used to the informal understated style of Westminster’s Cardinal Basil Hume, who remained a holy English monk to the end, slightly ruffled and never on his dignity — certainly not among university students.

Elected pope at 78, Benedict was regarded by some commentators as an interregnum or interlude pope. But he continued pursuing his passion for doctrinal purity, as he saw it, steadfastly refusing any concessions to the mores of modern life.

Priests and even bishops who dared to suggest that the church should consider married or — horror — women priests to cope with the rapidly aging priesthood in the Western world were hounded out.

American nuns, who have done valiant work in education and in helping the poor and outcasts of society, were formally investigated and chided for not dressing properly and for straying from the Vatican’s straight and narrow path by demanding a greater role for women in the church.

Meanwhile, wayward Catholic priests guilty of the criminal offense and the mortal sin of child abuse were shielded from punishment for years until they were publicly exposed. When the issue became a public scandal for the church, Pope Benedict spoke powerfully of his personal sorrow and compassion for the victims and apologized — too little, too late, according to the victims.

The pope blundered in his relations with Muslims by quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor who blamed Islam for “things only evil and inhuman.” He upset Jews with revisions to Good Friday prayers.

For many Catholic bishops and traditional believers, Benedict was a beacon of certainty in a world that had lost the faith. But for millions of ordinary Catholics struggling with everyday problems, as for the billions of non-Catholics, Benedict had little to say that was relevant to their lives. He was lost in a world of smells and bells where the pressures of unemployment, homelessness, hunger, daily survival in a time of recession did not penetrate.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Jesuit former archbishop of Milan, in a deathbed interview last year criticized the church for being 200 years behind the times, burdened by the ashes of history, bureaucracy, rites and rituals that were smothering the embers of burning love that Jesus Christ taught. “How can we liberate the embers from the ash, to reinvigorate the fires of love?” Martini challenged the pope.

Roman Catholics claim that the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals in their secret conclave where they vote for Benedict’s successor. The spirit will have to be at its inspiring best to cut through the politicking and to light upon a man who has faith, hope and love powerful enough to rescue a wounded church.

That means reaching out not merely to the faithful believers but to the sheep that have strayed and to all the human beings who are God’s children. Christ commanded his apostles, who became the first bishops, that they should go and teach all nations His message of Love.

Soon after Benedict XVI announced that he was quitting as pope, the Vatican was hit by a drenching thunderstorm in which violent lightning appeared over the top of St. Peter’s basilica. Was this an omen for good or ill, a blessing or a curse for the first voluntary resignation of a pope in hundreds of years?

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe when it was the best-selling Catholic newspaper in the English language