VATICAN CITY: Cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel Tuesday to elect the next pope amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the Catholic Church has seen in decades and with no clear front-runner in view.
Stunned by the abdication last month of Pope Benedict XVI, the red-hatted cardinals have met repeatedly this past week, sketching out the qualities of the man they need to lead a church plagued by scandals of sex abuse and mismanagement.
“Last time around there was a man of stature, three or four times that of any other cardinal,” French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin told reporters, in a reference to Germany’s Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected pope within 24 hours in 2005.
“That is not the case this time around. Therefore, the choice has to be made among one, two, three, four ... a dozen candidates. We still don’t really know anything. We will have to wait for the results of the first ballot.”
Vatican-watchers say Italy’s Angelo Scola and Brazil’s Odilo Scherer are in pole position. A vote for the former would bring the papacy back to
Italy for the first time in 35 years, while the latter would be the first non-European pope in 1,300 years. However, a host of other candidates from numerous nations have also been mentioned, leaving the secret contest wide open.
The 115 cardinal-electors from 48 countries will start filing into the Michelangelo-frescoed Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and will hold an initial vote shortly afterward.
“There is a dynamic that takes over once they’re in the Sistine Chapel. The first vote kind of lays out the names. We will have a pope by the end of the week,” said Father Tom Rosica, the Vatican spokesman for the English-speaking media.
No one in the modern era has won the necessary two-thirds majority on the first ballot, and the cardinal-electors will hold up to four ballots a day thereafter – two in the morning and two in the afternoon – until they elect a new pontiff.
In preparation for the election, workers hung up crimson curtains on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, ready for the moment when the new pontiff makes his first appearance before crowds gathered in the vast, cobbled piazza below.
Tailors also delivered three different sizes of white vestments – small, medium and large – confident that whoever becomes pope will be able to find a garment to fit him before stepping out onto the balcony. Seven different shoe sizes were also readied, along with a distinctive red cape.
The cardinals will stay in a simple Vatican hotel during the conclave, crossing over to the Sistine Chapel for the twice-daily voting sessions.
Smoke signals from above the chapel – black for an indecisive vote, white for a new pope – will tell the outside world how the ballot is proceeding.
The honor of announcing the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will fall to French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who will proclaim the outcome of the conclave from St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Bach-loving former Vatican diplomat will speak in Latin on a loggia over St. Peter’s Square after the conclave announces a new pope has been chosen.
The 70-year-old from Bordeaux used to be the top Vatican official for interreligious dialogue and previously served as head of the its diplomatic service.
His own election is seen as highly unlikely, but if this happens then it would fall to another cardinal to announce his name.