On April 18, the College of Cardinals officially began the process of nominating a successor to Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), a man whose life the whole world has shared in an extraordinarily intimate way in these last months.
The world held its collective breath as his publicly failed him and then slipped away.
The cardinals know they are electing a successor, not a replacement. No one else can be Karol Wojtyla.
In recent days we have been reminded of what an extraordinary person he was — the frail old man struggling to read a prepared text was replaced on our TV screens by the vigorous young pope who stood confidently in front of millions and spoke his mind unscripted, with force and passion.
We had perhaps forgotten after all these years not only how much he had physically changed but also how much he changed the papacy, scandalising some of the more proper cardinals as he danced and sang, swam and skied, improvised and shattered traditions.
There is no one waiting in the wings who has lived in the way he had the great traumas of the 20th century — Nazism and Communism. No one else can be the first non-Italian pope in umpteen centuries. No one else can be him.
But no one else need try to be Karol Wojtyla. It is not the role of a pope to imitate his predecessor, but rather to imitate Christ.
And as we know from the many canonisations we have witnessed in the last quarter century, there are myriad ways of doing that.
The cardinals will not be looking for a Wojtyla clone, who would anyway be unconvincing, but for a man with his own gifts and his own vision, who will be Pope in his own way.
That man will have his work cut out for him. At least initially he will be compared constantly to John Paul II, who carried out the papal ministry at a time of extraordinary expansion in global communications — satellites, Internet and a 24-hour a day obsession with ‘news’ made him a presence that no pope before him ever could have been.
The new successor of St Peter will need to make clear from the beginning that he is not in a popularity competition with John Paul.
Some of the cardinals — even some considered rather conservative — have already made it clear that they are hoping for a stronger role for the bishops in the leadership of the Church, in line with the teaching of the Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium.
Uninformed observers have sometimes interpreted John Paul’s travels as though he were a CEO going round to check on his branch managers — as though he were Bishop of the World, rather than Bishop of Rome.
And some Catholics, too, have preferred to see their communion with the Church as being directly through the Pope, neglecting the irreplaceable roles of parish and diocese in the formation and nourishing of our worldwide communion.
There are two other important respects in which our communion is threatened, and which the next pope will have to address in his role as its focus and guarantor.
The first is the increasing number of Catholic communities that are forced to do without the Eucharist because of the shortage of priests — a shortage that has grown steadily worse in the last quarter century as the number of Catholics has grown enormously. Recent figures show that for each additional priest there are almost 40,000 additional Catholics.
The second threat is the sense of alienation strongly felt and only occasionally expressed by many religious, who sense that their commitment and their particular contribution to the life of the Church has been little appreciated in recent years.
There are several areas where John Paul’s voice was courageous and prophetic, but has found only a mixed reception even within the Church. His developing opposition to the death penalty, and his consistent denunciations of war, most recently in the case of Iraq, have often received patronising responses from some who otherwise present themselves as his great admirers.
His warm openness to ecumenism and the bold gestures of fraternity to believers of other religions have unnerved those who think the strength of our identity can only be maintained with tight control and clear borders.
His trenchant critique of neo-liberal economics and the globalisation of greed has been all but dismissed as naive.
While he is feted for having played a major role in the downfall of Communism, his supporters prefer not to hear a word that hits closer to home.
His audacious Jubilee Year mea culpa for the sins of Christians over the centuries is too often passed over in embarrassed silence.
The same prophetic Spirit that moved John Paul will move his successor to find his own ways to continue these struggles.
Fr Dan Madigan is an Australian Jesuit priest based in Rome, where he is director of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University.