One of the developing world's leading candidates for the pope's successor, Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, said he believed the the churches of Africa and Asia had grown in strength to the extent they had produced "mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership also of this world institution."
He is president of the Vatican's pontifical council for justice and peace.
"I think in a way the church is always and has forever been ready for a non-European pope," the 64-year-old, a favourite of Benedict XVI, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. He did not think the prospect was "too far away", he added.
Asked about speculation that he could himself emerge from next month's conclave as Benedict's successor, he said: "I've always answered 'if it's the will of God.'"
However, although Turkson is an early favourite of the bookmakers in a very open field of candidates, there are question marks over his credentials, which some Vatican observers say could hold him back.
He was forced to apologise last year after screening a YouTube video at a meeting of bishops which made alarmist predictions about the rise of Islam in Europe. It claimed, among other things, that France would be an Islamic republic within 39 years.
Pope Benedict XVI this week announced his decision to resign on February 28, setting the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning. He said that because of his advanced age and diminishing strength, he didn't feel he could carry on the job.
The German-born Pope, hailed as a hero by conservative Catholics and viewed with suspicion by liberals, said he had noticed that his strength had deteriorated over recent months.
His papacy has been beset by a child sexual abuse crisis that tarnished the Church, one address in which he upset Muslims and a scandal over the leaking of his private papers by his personal butler.
In a statement, the pope said in order to govern " ... both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.
"For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter," he said.
A Vatican spokesperson said the pontiff would step down on February 28, leaving the office vacant until a successor was chosen to Benedict. – Guardian News and Media, Reuters, AFP