It is a question being asked with ever greater urgency in the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic hierarchy: to what extent will Pope John Paul II's legacy to the church be a clone of himself?
As the world watches the pain-racked pontiff's superhuman attempts to remain as spiritual head of more than a billion Christians, his most loyal lieutenants are closing ranks to ensure that his conservative philosophy continues to hold sway. A cabal of aides, some of whom have been with him since his earliest days, guard access to the pope's apartment and disseminate the line that the pointiff is still very much in charge. A handful of spiritual allies fulfil his duties during Easter week and help stage-manage his brief appearances.
The pontiff's inability to attend any of the Holy Week events has given them an added poignancy that has invited comparisons with the suffering of Christ.
"It's obvious that the pope is carrying a very heavy cross indeed, and he is giving a marvellous example of patience in the face of suffering," said US Archbishop John Foley.
But the pope's suffering has prompted speculation over the direction in which his successor will take the church. As pressure mounts for a modernizing pope -- prepared to brook discussion on female priests, celibacy and contraception -- conservatives are battling to keep their authority. They want to preserve the centralized structure established by John Paul II.
The conservatives know they have statistics on their side. The fact that 97 percent of the 120 cardinals who will be eligible to vote for the pontiff's successor were appointed by John Paul II himself makes it almost inconceivable that a moderniser will become the next pope.
They were also reassured by the pope's recent decision to entrust the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a hardline conservative, with composing this year's Good Friday meditation. Ratzinger is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's chief think tank, which has dominated discussions on sexual morality and birth control, and prevented liberals from gaining ground.
"Christ suffers in his own church," Ratzinger wrote in the meditations, which were approved by John Paul II.
Ratzinger used the meditations to describe the "falling of many Christians away from Christ into a godless secularism," which some have taken as a reference to the church's need to emphasize its conservative values in a modern age.
Ratzinger, 78, is one of the few members of John Paul II's inner circle considered "papabile" -- a cardinal who could become the next pope -- but he is viewed as a long shot.
Claims about who will succeed should be treated with caution. In 1978, the year John Paul II was elected, a book entitled Which Pope? came out, listing the favorites with no mention of John Paul II.
Nevertheless, the smart money is going on the College of Cardinals appointing the first "third-world pope,", chiefly as a response to shifting demographics within the church. Since John Paul II became pope, the church in the northern hemisphere has lost followers while the south has gained. Today nearly 65 percent of Catholics live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
With the college's inherent bias firmly stacked in favor of cardinals from the southern hemisphere, Vatican watchers believe the most likely candidate will be Cardinal Francis Arinze, 72, of Nigeria. He would be the first black African pontiff since Gelasius I (492-496).