Not that there was any real mystery about it, but Wednesday certainly confirmed that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is very much part of Pope Francis’ inner circle, one of those senior churchmen upon whom he most relies to carry out his agenda.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis created a new Vatican department for human development, combining several previous agencies including one for justice and peace headed by Turkson, who at just 67 remains one of the younger figures at the senior levels of Francis’ papacy.

Francis legendarily is his own man, far less dependent upon aides or advisers to craft his important decisions than most leaders who head important global institutions. Even so, looking around, there are a handful of key figures who clearly enjoy this pope’s favor and represent architects of important parts of his agenda.

Beyond Turkson, some of those figures include:

  • Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
  • Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, coordinator of the pope’s council of nine cardinal advisers.
  • Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany, a key Francis ally in his two synods of bishops on the family and head of the pope’s new Council for the Economy.
  • Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in the Philippines, president of the global Catholic charitable group Caritas.
  • Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, an important theological resource for Francis.
  • Bishop Nunzio Galantino, secretary of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference.
  • Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who runs the pope’s personal charitable outreach in Rome.
  • Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, appointed by Francis as rector of Argentina’s Catholic University, and largely perceived as one of the pope’s ghostwriters.
  • Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, head of pope’s commission for the protection of minors and a figure whose whose own personality and style clearly are in sync with the Francis vision of ecclesiastical leadership.

For Vatican-watchers, one unavoidable question implied by such a list of papal favorites comes down to this: Is there a possible successor among them?

Right now, there is absolutely zero indication of any health crisis around Pope Francis, any flagging energy, or any imminent end to his reign. However, merely as a thought exercise, Roman dinner tables sometimes find themselves occupied by curiosity over who might be best positioned to carry forward the Pope Francis project when Francis himself is either unable, or unwilling, to continue.

The central voting issue in the next conclave, which is the event when a pope is elected, will almost certainly break down along the lines of continuity or discontinuity with Pope Francis – in part because conclaves to some extent always function as a referendum on the papacy that’s just ended, and in part because Francis has set a bold course for the Church that has excited many in Catholicism and alarmed others who may feel it represents too much of a break.

What we might call the “discontinuity” party will certainly have its candidates, among whom someone such as Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, currently the Vatican’s top official for liturgy and a staunch conservative on matters of doctrine, may well figure prominently.

The question is who the candidate of the continuity party may be, and there’s a good chance that at least in the early rounds, one of the figures listed above and associated with the Francis approach will seem the obvious choice.

Certainly, there’s a solid argument to be made for Turkson. He’s a polyglot, speaking multiple languages fluently, he’s charismatic and projects well on TV, and obviously there would a definite buzz around the idea of a “black pope.”

Moreover, he’s got deep credentials both as a local bishop and now as a Vatican official, and would be taken seriously as the kind of leader whose experience would position him to lead.

In all honesty, however, the pro-continuity camp might feel even more comfortable with Parolin, 61, who as an Italian and a veteran of the inner workings of the Secretariat of State just oozes a capacity to govern, yet whose kismet with Francis does not make him a stereotypical product of “the system” or the old guard.

The knock against Parolin, of course, is that electing an Italian might strike some of the electors most sympathetic to Francis as a step back, a return to an Italian-dominated Church not sufficiently aware of, or open to, the rest of the world.

In unpacking the possibilities, it’s important to remember that one defining feature of the continuity camp is a sense that Francis represents a healthy break with the ways of the past, moving beyond a stifling version of tradition that sometimes, these folks believe, left the Church hobbled in its ability to adapt.

They might be willing to think past the usual protocol that says to be a serious papal candidate one must already be a cardinal, and if that’s the case, here’s a plausible wild card candidate to be the one to pick up the Pope Francis mantle: Krajewski.

On the surface, it seems a silly idea. Aside from not being a cardinal, he’s also just 52, and conventional wisdom would say that’s far too young to be elected a pope – the last two were 78 and 76, respectively, at the time of election. His position also carries no real policy responsibility, so he might not posses quite the gravitas one typically looks for in a pope.

On the other hand, the possibility of resignation changes the calculus a bit, meaning you’re not necessarily saddled with a pope for life, and Krajewski has a great deal going for him. As a Pope Francis man, he’s obviously identified with the agenda of this papacy, but as a Pole he also represents a more traditional form of Catholic life that might be reassuring to some conservatives, and he also embodies the St. John Paul II legacy.

After the last week, in other words, two things now seem inarguably true. One is that Turkson is an important runner to represent the future of the Pope Francis project the next time the Church finds itself needing to pick a pope, and the other is that he’s not quite the only figure advocates of continuity with this pope could see plausibly stepping into that role.