Pope John Paul II is dead. The election of his successor is at least two weeks away, and most members of his Curia have lost their positions.

During the interregnum, Vatican affairs have been left to three senior cardinals, one of them a former auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford.

A Baltimore native, Stafford, 72, is bishop to the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican tribunal that deals with excommunications. The position, which entails taking the place of the pope in hearing certain confessions and forgiving sins, makes him one of the highest-ranking Vatican administrators of the conclave's 11 American cardinal electors.

"He's the head of what could be called the forgiveness department of the Vatican," said Monsignor Walker Nickless, who worked with Stafford for almost a decade in Denver, Colo., where Stafford was archbishop. "My guess is that the new pope is likely to keep people like Cardinal Stafford in place to help with the transition, and that he'll be re-appointed to a position like the one he has now."

As they mourned the passing of Pope John Paul II yesterday, Stafford's family said they are comforted by his presence in Rome and his role in appointing the pope's successor.

"For him to be able to participate in that in his lifetime is a great honor and responsibility," said Ellicott City resident Ann Ebersberger, Stafford's cousin. "We are very proud."

Raised in a family of furniture salesmen, Stafford was drawn to the church from a young age. Instead of joining his father and two uncles in the family business - the former Stafford Brothers Furniture Corp. on West Pratt Street - Stafford began studying religion. After receiving his degree from Loyola College and St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Stafford traveled to Rome to attend the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 1957, when he was just 25, Stafford was ordained in Rome.

"We always knew there was something extraordinary about Frank," said Stafford's cousin Mark Stafford, 59, of Ellicott City. "It's hard to put into words, but he's an unbelievable man - so sincere and humble."

Friends and family say Stafford has always played down his rise in the ranks of the church, which began in the Baltimore Archdiocese, where he was charged with pastoral work while earning a master's degree in social welfare at Catholic University of America in Washington. In 1966, Stafford was named director of Archdiocesan Catholic Charities in Baltimore, a position he held for a decade.

In 1976, he left Baltimore for Tennessee, where he rose to become bishop of Memphis. A decade later he was appointed archbishop of Denver, where he impressed his co-workers with his acumen, sincerity and affection for the Colorado landscape.

"He's a very thoughtful man and has an amazing intellect," said Nickless, whom Stafford appointed a vicar in 1988. "He always loved Baltimore, but he loved the outdoors when he was here - he often went on hikes and knew the birds and the trees better than the natives."

In 1996, the pope called Stafford - whom he had met in a 1993 visit to Denver - to Rome to assume a post at the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity. Two years later, he was appointed cardinal. More than 25 family members traveled to Rome for his appointment, a "once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Ebersberger. "We stood there with our own private audience in front of the pope."

In 2003, he was appointed to his current position, a top Vatican post. In that position, Stafford recently presided over the Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter's Basilica - the first one the pope had missed in his 26-year tenure.

Despite the magnitude of Stafford's duties at the Vatican, friends say he always finds time to telephone them from Rome to check in.

"I hadn't seen him in two years and he recently called to ask how my mother is doing," said Nickless. "He remembered that she has Parkinson's disease, just like the pope. That's the kind of exceptional person he is."

Two weeks from now, Stafford will spend days cut off from friends and family while he gathers with the cardinals to attend to the most pressing - and perhaps most significant - duty of his lifetime: helping to choose a new pope.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.