The Polish prelate's reign, which had broken Italy's 456-year grip on the papacy, was over. Now, said President Ricardo Maduro, "Latin America has an extraordinary chance of having a pope in the Vatican."
Perhaps so. Latin America is home to more than 40% of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics and 20 of the 115 cardinals who begin their conclave today to choose John Paul's successor.
But so far, the Latin American cardinals are divided, disinclined to move as a bloc to promote one of their own. The idea that geography should weigh heavily in choosing the next pope has taken a back seat to such contentious issues as how the church should be governed and relate to people of other faiths.
The politicking among cardinals in the week since John Paul's funeral has generated far more speculation about Europeans angling for the job.
"Perhaps we shall soon see Latin America's first pope," said a diplomat from the region who is accredited to the Holy See. "But traditionally, it is the Europeans who build alliances for papal conclaves. The Latin Americans have not yet managed to break from that tradition."
John Paul's election in 1978 was a daring geopolitical choice. Thrusting a Pole into the papacy during the Cold War energized the church's resistance to communist rule in Eastern Europe.
Late in his reign, cardinals began to wonder aloud whether John Paul's death would be the time, in the freshness of a new millennium, for a similarly historic move. A pope from Latin America, where poverty and income inequality are burning problems, would dramatize the church's commitment to social justice and help counter the spread of non-Catholic evangelical faiths there, some cardinals argued.
Cardinal Adam Kozlowiecki of Poland echoed that idea last week in a closed congregation of cardinals preparing for the conclave. The prelate, who at 94 is ineligible to vote, said that in the search for a new pope, "we must look to Latin America."
Political leaders also have been weighing in. A Latin American pope "would be much closer to us and know our problems better," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said hours after John Paul's death.
The idea of a compatriot running the Catholic world has excited even some communist officials in Cuba, where Fidel Castro's government was officially atheist until 1991. Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's parliament, represented Castro at John Paul's funeral and told reporters here that Castro would be delighted to see Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whom he counts as a friend, become pope.
Among the 20 Latin American cardinals here are seven papabili, papal candidates who at one time or other in recent years have created a buzz.
But cardinals from Latin America have avoided parochial cheerleading, even while emphasizing the region's importance to the church.
The papal election "is not a soccer match," Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico, one purported contender, told the Mexico City newspaper El Universal. "The one who decides is God."
"The new pope will have to help and work with the church in Latin America, as we are the strongest in the world," Cardinal Antonio Jose Gonzalez Zumarraga of Ecuador said in an interview last week. Like other cardinals older than 80, he is ineligible to vote in the conclave but has been attending preparatory meetings.
Instead of joining forces at these gatherings, the Latin Americans have divided between two emerging camps.
Several have lined up behind Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, the 78-year-old chief of the Vatican doctrinal office. Ratzinger is widely identified as the early candidate of an archconservative bloc that favors strong central control over church affairs, continued rigid enforcement of Catholic doctrine and a focus on shoring up the faith against secularism.
Among his backers is Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Vatican-based head of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The Colombian prelate is reportedly holding dinners at his home to win support for Ratzinger.
As president of the Latin American Bishops Conference, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile would be positioned to build a regional coalition behind a Latin American candidate, but he too has reportedly fallen in behind Ratzinger, as has Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.
An opposing camp is reportedly lining up behind Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Italy, who favors a more decentralized church.
Cardinals Claudio Hummes of Brazil and Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras are said to be in that camp because they differ with Ratzinger's agenda for a different reason. They believe that social activism — fighting poverty and injustice, for example — should be the church's top priority.
After subtly promoting their own candidacies, Hummes and Rodriguez came to Rome this month with few certain supporters. Either one, like the Latin Americans in the Ratzinger camp, could emerge as a contender if the lead candidates falter.
"The most powerful cardinals are at the center of the world's currents and believe that the next pope should be from there, from the center of the world," said Brazilian Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, 83.
Speaking to Agence France-Presse from Sao Paolo, Arns said that by the "center of the world" he meant Europe and the U.S.
Cardinals from there "do not look to Latin America," he said.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.