And after the cardinals entered the basilica on Monday - with scores of onlookers holding up cameras and mobile phones trying to snap a picture of the papal election candidates - speculation was rife about the new pope's nationality.
"I really want an Italian," said Mario Colonna, a Roman pensioner, adding that he was hoping to see Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan, or his successor Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi picked by the 115 cardinals who start the secret deliberations of the conclave on Monday afternoon.
"Because the church in Rome represents the whole world, it is natural that he be an Italian," he added.
But his daughter Gilda disagreed. "If he represents the whole world, he doesn't need to be Italian. I want the Brazilian, to help the children there," she said, referring to Cardinal Claudio Hummes, archbishop of Sao Paolo.
Father Martin of Germany, also attending the mass, noted that it would be difficult for Europeans to accept a non-European pope.
"I would like a pope from Asia, Latin America or Africa because it would show the openness of the church, but it will be difficult for Europeans to adapt," said the priest living in Rome, who had to stand throughout the mass as all the seats were already taken.
The Polish-born John Paul II, who died on 2 April, aged 84, was the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years.
Most clergymen and women were more reticent. Sister Mary Christine of Nigeria comes from the same tribe as Cardinal Francis Arinze, a strong candidate to succeed John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II was the first
non-Italian pontiff in 400 years
"We are not praying for him specifically, but for the right person," said the nun. But, in a possible hint, she said she was praying for a "pope open to the reality of the world" and a pope from the developing world would have that quality.
Sister Hiltrud, a Franciscan nun from Germany, gave no clue as to any preference she may have.
"We are here to tell the cardinals 'we are united, we stand behind you and we are a big family'," said the nun, standing outside the basilica in a sun-filled St Peter's Square.
The Vatican urged the faithful to join in prayer with the cardinals as they choose the 264th successor of Peter, believed to be one of the apostles of Jesus Christ.