Next month Pope Francis will celebrate his 79th birthday, and by all accounts he remains remarkably vigorous. A brief mini-drama in October about an alleged brain tumor turned out to be fantasy, and both in Rome and on the road he keeps up a pace that would devastate most ordinary mortals.

There’s no reason to believe his papacy is nearing an end, and every reason to think it’s full steam ahead.

On the other hand, Francis has dropped hints that his might be a relatively brief run, and he’s also spoken approvingly about the example set by Pope Benedict XVI in resigning. Given his capacity for surprise, it’s entirely possible he’ll blindside the world with a decision to step aside just when it’s least expected.

No matter how things play out, it’s never too early to have an eye on what might come next – in part because it speaks to the future of the Church, and, in part because, let’s face it, such speculation is just fun.

Over the weekend, we got an intriguing X-ray of where things might stand should a transition in the papacy suddenly beckon. It came in a Vatican statement confirming the 12 prelates elected at the recent Synod of Bishops on the family to the “Ordinary Council,” meaning the body that will oversee synod operations until the next general assembly.

Versions of these names had already been reported, but the Vatican delayed making them official until Pope Francis decided on three additional figures to add by personal appointment.

The 12 prelates elected by the synod are:

  • Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria
  • Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa
  • Cardinal Oscar Rodriguzez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras
  • Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
  • Cardinal George Pell of Australia, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy
  • Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops
  • Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India
  • Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines
  • Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, United Kingdom
  • Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
  • Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, United States
  • Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy

The three prelates named by Francis are:

  • Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq
  • Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid, Spain
  • Archbishop Sérgio da Rocha of Brasília, Brazil

To begin, it’s important to stipulate that elections to a synod council are an inexact measure of who might get a look in a papal conclave.

For one thing, they’re drawn from prelates who actually took part in the synod, and on any given occasion several papabili, meaning papal contenders, aren’t in the mix. (This time, for instance, the most serious American contender last time around, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, wasn’t in the synod.) For another, all the bishops in a synod vote for the council, but the electors in a papal ballot are exclusively cardinals.

Also, election to the council sometimes can be more a measure of the unique dynamics of a synod rather than an overall index of someone’s standing.

One could read the support for Pell, for instance, partly as a reaction to the controversy that erupted over a letter to the pope he helped organize at the beginning of the synod expressing concern over its procedures. It would be a way for prelates to say that whatever echo the affair had in the media, it didn’t alter the regard in which they hold Pell.

Similarly, some of the votes drawn by Chaput may have been a “thank you” for his labors in hosting the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia just before the synod began.

That said, elections to a synod council are still significant, largely because they’re about the only time that possible future popes face an open ballot among their fellow prelates.

So, what did we learn?

For one thing, the next conclave may struggle to find consensus.

Of the 12 elected prelates, six (Schönborn, Rodriguez, Gracias, Tagle, Nichols, and Forte) were associated with reform positions during the synods on the family, while five (Napier, Pell, Ouellet, Sarah, and Chaput) were seen as strong conservative voices. Turkson profiled more or less as non-aligned, with a foot in each camp.

The results are probably honest in reflecting sentiment inside the synod, but they also present a picture of a divided body of bishops.

In that light, a key question is which of these prelates might be positioned to attract cross-over support.

From the progressive side, the 70-year-old Schönborn could be such a figure.

He’s a Dominican who for much of his career was seen as a strong John Paul II/Benedict XVI bishop, and still has plenty of friends and admirers in more conservative Catholic circles. Among the most cosmopolitan figures in the College of Cardinals, Schönborn also draws good reviews for his personal graciousness and intellectual firepower.

As the synod rolled on, Schönborn was sort of its E.F. Hutton – when he talked, people listened, because they knew his utterances would be interesting.

From the conservative camp, the 71-year-old Ouellet remains a compelling personality.

Despite aligning with the opposition to Communion for the divorced and remarried, Ouellet avoided being drawn into the public fireworks surrounding the synod. He’s seen as a figure of deep personal humility and integrity, and as the Vatican’s prime mover in the naming of bishops for the past five years, he’s got a wide network of friends in high places.

Conservatives might prefer to consolidate around an African candidate, although it’s an open question whether either Sarah or Napier would have enough traction.

Sarah, for instance, might come off as a touch extreme — during the synod, he referred to both gender ideology and ISIS as “apocalyptic beasts” — and cardinals who head dioceses might also wonder whether, at 15 years and counting, he’s been in Rome too long to be in touch with life in the trenches.

As a result, it may be that the most compelling candidates from the developing world, as measured by the synod elections, are Turkson of Ghana and Tagle of the Philippines.

Both are relatively young, with Turkson at 67 and Tagle at 58, yet both are well-seasoned in major leadership roles. Both are articulate, charismatic, and likely would have strong support among those committed to continuity with Pope Francis.

Of the two, Turkson may have a better shot at backing across party lines. He’s the public face of Francis’ press on climate change, for example, but he’s also something of a hawk on Islamic extremism. (In 2012, Turkson stirred controversy at a different synod of bishops by playing an alarmist Youtube video warning of a Muslim takeover in Europe.)

At the moment, all this is no more than an amusing parlor game, for the obvious reason that there’s no conclave in the offing. The dynamics can, and almost certainly will, change between now and whenever that happens.

Yet the synod elections nevertheless offer a reminder of one key insight about a papal succession.

In the abstract, one can sit down and design a profile of a perfect pope, and heading into the next conclave many cardinals and pundits alike will doubtless do exactly that. In the end, however, it boils down to who’s realistically on offer — and for now, these 12 prelates certainly fit that bill.