Ravasi, the Vatican's culture czar, is considered more of a long shot for the papacy. He has tried to boost the church's profile in the worlds of art and science, especially through an unusual project called "Courtyard of the Gentiles," which brings together the devout and the spiritually indifferent in cultural events throughout Europe. Under his direction, the Vatican is sponsoring its own exhibition at the prestigious Venice Biennale this year, featuring contemporary artworks based on the book of Genesis.
Ravasi's efforts reflect the urgency that the Vatican has attached to shoring up the faith in Europe, where church leaders wring their hands over the rising, and seemingly unstoppable, tide of secularism. The number of Catholic churchgoers continues to decline in what was once Christianity's strongest bastion, despite efforts by Benedict to reverse, or at least arrest, the trend.
That has only reinforced the feeling among some that the time has come for a leader from outside Europe, which is no longer the church's center of gravity.
If the cardinals buck centuries of history and pick a non-European pontiff, then Marc Ouellet of Canada is one of the strongest contenders from the Americas, home to more Catholics than any other part of the world.
Ouellet, 68, once described being pope as a "nightmare" job that nobody would willingly pursue. He oversees the Vatican department that vets potential bishops, but his supporters say that, as pope, Ouellet would be enough of an outsider — and a non-Italian at that — to shake up the administration and reform an unwieldy, dysfunctional, fractious institution beset by scandal.
Managing the Vatican has emerged as a serious issue in the aftermath of embarrassing leaks of private papal documents that exposed the place as a hotbed of scheming rivals. The cardinals have identified governance as a major concern during their pre-conclave meetings; some prelates are said to want a new pope with a firm hand and a long broom.
But Ouellet's reputation in his native Canada is mixed. Although he embodies the conservatism of Benedict and the late Pope John Paul II, who made him a cardinal, Ouellet's hard-line views on hot-button social issues such as the church's stance against same-sex marriage have alienated many in liberal Quebec. Denunciations rained down on him when he ruled out abortion for women impregnated through rape, saying: "There's already a victim. Should we be making another one?"
Ouellet has also been criticized for not doing more to hold bishops accountable for covering up sexual abuse by clerics, a crisis that continues to erode the church's moral standing in Western countries and that will need to be addressed by the new pope.
Ouellet's conservatism endears him to some fellow prelates in Latin America. He speaks fluent Spanish and cites his time working as a young priest in Colombia as one of the most formative experiences of his life. In 2010, Benedict appointed him head of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the most heavily Catholic region on Earth.
But if Latin America is so important, some say, why not just have a new pope who is actually from there?
ODILO PEDRO SCHERER
A Brazilian of German descent, Odilo Pedro Scherer is archbishop of Sao Paulo, the biggest Catholic diocese in the world's most populous Catholic country.
About 40% of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, and some clerics in the region have pointedly said that the time is right for a Latin American shepherd of the flock.
But the church in the region is under stern challenge from evangelical Protestantism, as it is in Africa, particularly the livelier Pentecostal strains. Nowhere is that more true than in Brazil, a nation of nearly 200 million people that was 90% Catholic just a few decades ago, a figure that has since dropped to 60% to 70%.
Some parishes in Brazil have fought holy fire with holy fire: Charismatic Catholic churches, where believers speak in tongues and worship to contemporary music, are on the rise. Scherer has at times criticized the theatrics of such services but lauded their desire to win back the faithful.
He has also toed the Vatican line, if a bit more mildly, in condemning liberation theology, the left-wing, Marxist-tinged movement to empower the poor that spread throughout Latin America in the 1980s.
At 63, Scherer would fit the bill for a younger, more vigorous pope to succeed the 85-year-old Benedict. He's not a stranger to the Vatican, where he served for several years in the department overseeing bishop selection before returning to Brazil. However, he is viewed by some as competent but not charismatic enough, in the conventional sense, to be the next pope, unable to electrify crowds and connect with the public as John Paul II did; a veteran Vatican watcher described Scherer as "docile and bland."
A Latin American pontiff would represent a historic shift for the Roman Catholic Church.
So would a pope from the United States, but that's still seen as unlikely. Although Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Sean O'Malley of Boston have been floated as possibilities, other prelates may shy away from the idea of a head of the global church hailing from the world's remaining superpower. And despite the church's growth in Africa, most Vatican analysts think the prospect of an African pope is remote.
Scherer has dismissed geography as a factor in the search for a new pope.
"The most important reflection that will be made at the conclave isn't whether the pope comes from one place or another, whether he has this or that origin," Scherer said, "but whether he is the person most suitable to lead the church in this moment of its history."