By next weekend the Roman Catholic Church could have a new pope to fill the vacuum and uncertainty caused by the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI at the beginning of February.
If the new pontiff has not been named by the end of the week then it will be a sign of deep division and uncertainty.
Voting starts in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday 12 March. It then continues with two votes in the morning and afternoon every day. If no one obtains a two-thirds majority in three days then the cardinals adjourn for a day of prayer and reflection before they start voting again.
On 12 March 115 cardinal electors (those under the age of 80 the day Benedict XVI resigned, minus two – one ill and one in disgrace) enter the Sistine Chapel and remain closed away from the outside world until they have decided who will be the next successor of St Peter.
Until the last conclave in 2005 the cardinals also used to live close to the Chapel in spartan accommodation; now they lodge in comfort in S. Marta, a convent modernised by Pope John Paul II especially for those who would vote for his successor after his death.
For the public the only indication of what is happening inside the Chapel from Tuesday onwards is the smoke that comes out of the little chimney to the right of St Peter’s. At the end of each morning and afternoon voting session the cardinals burn their ballot papers in a stove that has been used since the 1939 conclave. Another machine added in 2005 controls the colour of the smoke that signals whether or not a new pope has been elected. If the smoke emerging from the chimney is black the cardinals have not reached the necessary two-thirds majority. If it is white, habemus papam. We have the pope.
Decisions in all conclaves since 1831 have been arrived at rapidly and the new pope has emerged on the central balcony of St Peter’s after just a few ballots. If history repeats itself, therefore, by next Saturday we should know who is to follow Pope Benedict XVI and what papal name he has chosen.
As the cardinals go into the conclave on Tuesday most observers believe that the list of papabili is still long. The ten or so pre-conclave meetings of all the cardinals (including those over 80) have focused more on the numerous problems facing the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church than on the actual candidate.
The Italian press, one of the most experienced in the world at Vatican watching, has however managed to narrow the candidates down to its own wish-list of three; one Italian (Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan) and two from outside Europe (Seán O’Malley, archbishop of Boston) and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer (archbishop of São Paulo).
However it is conventional Catholic wisdom that the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways once the cardinals are cloistered away in the Sistine Chapel. Translated into secular terms this means that surprises do happen once Michelangelo’s Creation and his Last Judgement surround the cardinal electors.
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