VATICAN CITY - One hundred and fifteen cardinals will proceed Tuesday into the Sistine Chapel and take a vow not to reveal any detail from the conclave. They will hear a meditation from one of the elder cardinals, who is not voting because of his age, over eighty, and will sit down to write, on paper, the name of their preferred next pope.
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A decision is not expected Tuesday, as no candidate will probably receive the necessary two-thirds majority. The cardinals will continue to a long night of prayer and meditation and return to the chapel on Wednesday for more rounds of balloting.
Each day of the conclave will have at most four rounds of votes. A cardinal or other member of the church leaking any detail is threatened with excommunication, but the Vatican is not leaving anything to chance. Electronic jamming devices have been placed around the chapel to prevent even a text message getting out.
Unlike the conclave of 2005, when Joseph Ratzinger was the front-runner from the first round of voting, there is no consensus candidate this time. Ratzinger, who was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI, shocked the Roman Catholic Church last month with his resignation,
The Church faces multiple crises: plummeting numbers of believers, challenges from Islamist and evangelical rivals, a series of scandals in the Vatican Bank, bureaucratic dysfunction and of course thousands of allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Benedict was a man of the establishment, an admired theologian but not a pope capable of shaking up the Vatican and dragging it into the 21st Century. The Church's global spread and the suspicion and anger towards the Curia, the Vatican's inner hierarchy, have brought about a situation where there is no one influential bloc powerful enough to ensure the selection of any particular candidate, especially not in a period when, for the first time, there are voluble voices calling for a non-European pope.
Italy is still the most represented country, with 28 cardinals, but their increasing weakness coupled with the hostility toward the Curia, could cause, for the third time in a row, the election of a non-Italian as pope - after the German Benedict and the Polish John Paul II.
Nevertheless, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, is still considered a leading candidate due to the still considerable power of the establishment. But Scola will face challenges from other strong candidates representing the important communities of the United States and Latin America.
On the other hand, despite talks of the first black or Asian pope, the talk in Rome is that the chances of Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson or Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines are slim: the church in Africa and in Asia is still seen as insufficiently developed to produce a pope. Perhaps next century.
The two-thirds majority vote requirement - 77 cardinals - has led to the prediction that it will take at least two days to elect a pope, though it is thought that the conclave will end this week as the cardinals are anxious to return to their communities for Easter.
The candidates who receive the most votes in the first round may well discover on the second day an insurmountable bloc of opposition, leading to the election of a third candidate. One dominant scenario is Scola and Cardinal Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, coming top in the first round but being replaced as front-runners by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet or Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan on Wednesday.
Even the most veteran Italy hands, the vaticanisti, admit that it is almost impossible to predict this conclave and the pope could be one of a dozen papabili, or cardinals who could be pope.
Whoever is elected faces a rough time of upheaval in the church. Many expect that the new pope will replace hundreds of senior officials, signaling to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics a period of renewal - but not any major theological changes on issues such as celibacy for priests, ordination of women, birth control or homosexuality. All the candidates were appointed cardinals by arch-conservatives Benedict XVI and John Paul II, and theological changes would cause shock and schism in the Church.
One area which will see some innovation is the Catholic Church's relations with other religions. The Vatican is well aware of the difficulties and dangers facing its believers in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa who are threatened by Islamic fundamentalists, the millions of souls being won by rival evangelical churches in the Americas and the need to continue the trend toward improving relations with Jews begun by the last two popes. Any past statements on Islam and Judaism by the new pope will be closely scrutinized.
Meanwhile, the Vatican is focused on more earthly matters such as the bad weather in Rome. Strong winds could prevent smoke rising from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel: The smoke from burning the secret ballot papers, if black, shows there is no decision yet, while white signals that a new pope has been chosen. There is also concern that high winds could blow the smoke back into the chapel, damaging Michelangelo's frescoes.
The Next Pope?
The 63-year-old Archbishop of Sao Paolo has become one of the leading front-runners. Relatively young and an avid tweeter and regular guest on Brazilian talk shows, Scherer believes in bringing the Church to the people. His great advantage is that he is seen as representing the church outside Europe but has also spent seven years working in the Vatican. His German roots will also help European cardinals to vote for him. Despite that, some conservatives see him as a weak candidate in a period when the church wants to confront the evangelical movements.
The 71-year-old Archbishop of Milan is thought to be the strongest Italian candidate and many expect him to garner the most votes in the first round of voting. Scola is an ultra-conservative who has spoken harshly against feminism and homosexuality, which probably will not harm his chances. Despite that, the weakening of the Italian bloc and the fact that many cardinals are expected to support a non-European pope lessens his chances of receiving the necessary two-thirds majority. Scola is seen as the establishment's candidate despite having served only for a short period in the Curia. His involvement with right-wing political movements could also harm his chances.
The 63-year-old Archbishop of New York has emerged as a surprising leading candidate in recent days, especially as a result of the activism of the American bloc. Dolan received major credit for being one of the early voices against covering up sexual abuse by priests and also got kudos from conservatives for confronting U.S. President Barack Obama over health plans requiring employers, including churches, to pay for their female employees' birth control. But many conservatives see him as too "folksy" in his rites. His election would signal a major loss for the Italian group.
The 68-year-old Canadian cardinal has for three years been the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, a powerful position in the Vatican. Prior to that he was archbishop of Quebec. That makes him a compromise candidate, representing both the Vatican establishment and the church outside Europe. Ouellet is a charismatic preachers and, after decades teaching philosophy at the college level, also a noted theologian. Many see him as the candidate who can take the lead in the later rounds of voting in the conclave after the early leaders, Scola and Scherer, are faced with opposition.