But already thoughts are turning to the future -- to whom will lead the church of more than 1 billion people in a world of uncertainties and contradictory impulses.
RFE/RL asked German theologian Wolfgang Klausnitzer to comment on the Roman Catholic Church's situation as it faces the future without the guiding hand of John Paul. He says the new pope will face completely different pressures from the pontiff who was elected more than 26 years ago.
"In comparison with 1978, when [Pope John Paul II] was elected, other political constellations have arisen," says Klausnitzer. "In , it was East-West concerns, communism in the East bloc, and now other confrontations and challenges are there. One thinks of the North-South divide, [in terms of poverty] and the question of [relations] with other world religions has become a dominant factor, for example, Islam."
In those more than two decades, the center of gravity of the church has moved from Europe and North America to the developing world.
"Some 48 percent of all Catholics [now] live in Latin America, that is a consequence of the birth rate, the demographic development, and it's a trend which was evident already during the time of [a previous pope] Paul VI [in the 1970s]," Klausnitzer says.
John Paul II, a Pole, broke a line of more than 400 years of Italian popes when he became the first Slavic pontiff. With more and more Catholics living in the southern hemisphere, pressure on the Vatican is growing to choose a pope from the developing world.
Cardinals from Latin America and Africa are strongly represented among the lists of possible successors to John Paul II.
But the fact is that Catholics in Latin America and Africa tend to be more conservative in their views than Catholics from North America or Europe. Many Catholics in the industrialized countries -- while supporting the pope -- reject his policies against contraception and the advancement of women.
The already polarized church could see widening differences between the two trends unless the new pope can skillfully manage to keep the doctrinal content of the church intact while facing up to modern ethical challenges posed by advances in science and technology.
All popes, however, have had to contend with diverging views within the worldwide church, which is not as monolithic as it often appears.
Klausnitzer says the papacy has long been something of a figurehead, representing unity while in fact presiding over substantial differences. He says the pope can make more of an impact on the church as an outstanding individual than as a bureaucrat based in Rome.
"The papacy in the last two centuries, the 19th and 20th centuries, has been really a figurehead," Klausnitzer says. "[The new pope] will only succeed if he works as [an individual], a witness to the faith, and not in the sense of a bureaucracy, anonymous and emanating from Rome in a centralized way; that way he will fail."
The process of electing the new pope by the College of Cardinals gets under way at the Vatican later in April.