The impact of a deeply prayerful person should not be underestimated. I know many of my Catholic friends who will be deeply distressed at the loss of a man they had found inspiring not for anything he DID necessarily but for the person he was. Pope John Paul II was one of the most world-travelled popes ever and his presence alone was an inspiration to some I have spoken to. He made that presence felt in so many places. How many of us can say that we've achieved anything like that? Right now the world mourns a great man and an inspiration to many. In a few days time it will be watchng and waiting to see who follows him.
It's been a long time since there has been a papal election as Pope John Paul II was one of the longest serving popes in history. It's not outside living memory though. 1978 saw the election of two popes after the death of Pope Paul VI who had served since 1963 and the rather more sudden death of Pope John Paul I who had only served as pope for just over a month.
Even more than that, thanks to Angels and Demons (the prequel to Da Vinci Code) there are probably FAR more people out there nowadays who know how a pope is elected.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has a fascinatingly detailed description of the history of the election of popes.
Any Catholic adult male may be elected as pope... think on guys! Are you papabile?
... though it's fairly unlikely to be anyone who is not a priest and indeed a cardinal!
The last layman to be elected was the rather unfortunate Celestine V who was elected in 1294 and the last pope who had not previously been a cardinal was Urban VI in 1378. There have already been some suggestions about some possible successors.The BBC also has some suggestions.
Pope John Paul II has himself issued a papal bull on the matter of the papal election called UNIVERSI DOMINICI GREGIS.
The cardinals meet in the Sistine chapel in a conclave ( con clave "with a key" – i.e they are locked in) and they vote for the new pope until one man has a two thirds majority. At each vote, the voting papers are burned and the smoke is seen by those watching outside. For an nonconclusive vote, straw is mixed with the ballot papers to make a dark smoke. When a successful vote has taken place, the smoke is white to indicate the election of a new pope. Personally I think that is kinda cool.