When the news came that Pope John Paul II was facing his final hours, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels was on a mission to China that exemplified his stature as a leading church diplomat.
Danneels, 71, met with government officials, Catholics and representatives of other religions on a rare visit by a cardinal to China, which severed ties with the Vatican in 1951. He cut short his trip and rushed home to hold a memorial Mass in Brussels.
Although Danneels is seen as having a deft diplomatic touch that is useful in sensitive interfaith talks, some Vatican observers say his views are too progressive for conservatives in the conclave.
He has long spoken forcefully about the need for greater "collegiality" -- a Vatican code word for more democracy in John Paul's centralized church. And he has suggested that elderly popes should abdicate if they become too frail to fulfill their duties.
Danneels differed with John Paul, with whom he was close, on the issue of contraception. He told a Dutch television station last year that an HIV-positive person should use a condom rather than risk transmitting the virus.