For most Americans, the story of the Catholic church centers on its encounters with the West - starting when Christianity arrived in Rome within years of Christ's death and then grew into the state religion in 313.
From that sprang the spread throughout Europe, the Crusades, the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, the artistic masterpieces of the Renaissance, the rebellion of Martin Luther and his Protestant allies, the centuries of religious wars.
FOR THE RECORD - One element in a graphic accompanying an article in last Sunday's Perspective section on the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church incorrectly reported the number of Catholics living in Maryland and the state's national ranking based on Catholic population. About 1 million Catholics live in Maryland, which makes the state 15th by number of Catholics in the nation.
The Sun regrets the error.
One element in a graphic accompanying an article in last Sunday's Perspective section on the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church incorrectly reported the number of Catholics living in Maryland and the state's national ranking based on Catholic population. About 1 million Catholics live in Maryland, which makes the state 15th by number of Catholics in the nation.
The Sun regrets the error.
Today, that narrative is of the dynamic between the church and the secular culture that arose as the Enlightenment led to modernity, of debates that range from Galileo's supposed heresy to birth control and stem cell research.
Hidden from many Western eyes is an entirely different story of the Catholic church that is emerging, formed by its relationship with other cultures and traditions, particularly in the last century in Africa.
In recent decades, as church membership has stagnated in Europe and America, it has grown exponentially in places like Africa, India and China.
The new pope - whether he is from Europe or one of these emerging regions - will have to carry on what John Paul II began, telling the story of the new church that has arisen from these encounters.
That church will depart from practices and priorities that dominate in America and Europe, forcing the Vatican to accept new rituals and Third World social concerns.
"Christianity has always grown by moving away from whatever its center was to whatever the new territories were," says the Rev. Emmanuel M Katongole, a professor at the Duke Divinity School. He points out that this Middle Eastern religion began to change within decades of its founding as it adopted Greek traditions.
"Of course, for a while, these traditions have been located in the West - in Europe and America - so Europe might get the feeling that it is the home of the Christian Catholic tradition. But it has constantly been on the move."
"Now the new center of the Christian faith is moving south," says Katongole, a native of Uganda. "And it's a good thing, too. It prevents the West from getting into this kind of complacence, of thinking, `We are the center of the world.'"
Katongole notes that in 1900 there were 1.7 million Christians in Africa. In 2003, 360 million were there, and 600 million are projected for 2025. Not all will be Catholics, of course, but they will get their share.
As it has moved around the world, the Catholic church has proved to be a resilient body, able to adapt to local customs while keeping its core beliefs intact. This was true from its earliest centuries as it took over Roman pagan holidays and turned them into sacred Christian celebrations.
"One advantage I see in Catholicism is that it is neither local nor universal, it is both," says Katongole. "It is neither foreign nor indigenous, it is both. At one historical time or another, it might be more on one side than the other, but true Catholicism works within that intersection in order to provide very vibrant traditions."
So it was in South America and Central America where the faith spread by the intensely Catholic colonizers of Spain and Portugal often included rituals associated with indigenous belief systems.
That process is seen as completed, so much so that the still huge South American and Central American church, with its Third World problems, is seen as part of "old" Catholicism, now facing many of the same difficulties as seen in Europe and North America - declining attendance and a loss of members to growing Pentecostal Protestant faiths.
The story of the Catholicism of the 21st century will be written in places like Africa as the church comes to terms with belief systems that are rooted in centuries of tradition - as well as political and economic realities that have been sculpted by colonialism and battered by globalism.
"Our usual categories of liberal and conservative, right and left, don't work so well with the kind of Catholicism you find in Africa," says Paul Griffiths, chairman of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Socially, they are very conservative. They are not interested in gay liberation or the ordination of women, those types of issues. In fact, they would be opposed usually.
"But on social-justice questions, they are quite liberal or left," he says. "They are strong supporters of trade unions, of utilizing resources wisely, and so on. This means listening carefully. We might see that our categories are not the only ones, that we have something to learn."
Mathew Schmalz, a professor in the department of religion at the College of Holy Cross, agrees: "For most of the Catholic world - the Third World - specifically American issues, abortion, celibacy, things like that, are not the main issues."
Changing the church
As the church grows in the Third World, these new countries will inevitably change it, as they make the church their own.