Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome have sequestered themselves in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next pope. However, there is still no clear candidate to succeed Benedict XVI, who resigned in February.
The 115 cardinals who have the right to vote on the new pope have taken an oath which commits them to absolute secrecy. They've also promised to serve and be loyal to the new pope. They've now been shut away, as they have been for every conclave since 1274; originally they were even kept outside Rome, so that they were kept away from the influence of secular rulers, and the election would go ahead more efficiently. But sometimes it took them years to choose a new pope.
This time they're in the Santa Martha guesthouse next to Saint Peter's Basilica. But they have no contact to the outside world, and television, telephones, computers and newspapers are banned.
It's likely to take a few days for one of the candidates to gather the two-thirds majority he needs to become the 266th successor to Saint Peter. That's 77 of the 115 votes. On Tuesday (12.03.2013), there was an initial round of voting - a kind of primary election - to get an idea of who the candidates might be. As expected, black smoke rose from the specially installed chimney in the Sistine Chapel, to show that no choice had been made.
From Wednesday onwards, there'll be four votes a day, and there are already hundreds of cameras on Saint Peter's Square, focussed on the chimney and waiting for the white smoke which will show that a pope has been elected. Five thousand journalists are in Rome to carry the news when it comes.
Reformers against Romans
The Vaticanisti, the professional Vatican correspondents of the Italian press, agree on one thing: there is no clear favorite. Following the intense election campaign which has been going on over the last few weeks among the cardinals who have been meeting daily in plenary session, it seems that two camps have been formed.
On one side are the reformers from Europe and the USA, who want to modernize the church and reorganize its ecclesiastical center in Rome. Their candidate is evidently the 71-year-old Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, who, says the Italian newspaper La Stampa, is the front-runner and will win 35 votes in the first round.
The other camp is made up of the "Romans" - mainly the cardinals who have senior positions in the Curia, the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome. They support the 63-year-old Archbishop of Sao Paolo, Brazil, Odilo Pedro Scherer. He's a conservative, an ally of the former Pope Benedict, and he would be the first non-European pope in the history of the church.
Ahead of the Conclave, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (68), said there had been a good fundamental debate about the condition of the church: "People have spoken to each other in an unusually open way this week, with great sincerity, about the light and the shadow in the current situation of the church."
But he warns against comparing the election of a pope with a normal election: "It's a matter of asking oneself, who is the one who has been chosen by God? Naturally we have to contribute to the process and work at it, but it's not about parties or groups, but about who should be the spiritual head of the church."
A compromise candidate?
If neither of the camps can win the majority it needs, that's when compromise candidates, or even rank outsiders, get their chance. One man who could end up smiling is the former Archbishop of Quebec, the 68-year-old Cardinal Marc Ouellet, currently prefect of the College of Bishops and thus a leading figure in the Curia.
Other names being mentioned are the Archbishop of Boston, Sean Patrick O'Malley (68), and the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan (63). Dolan drew plenty of attention to himself in recent weeks in Rome through his jovial public manner, holding regular press conferences until the Vatican stopped him. But he's said in an interview that he thinks his chances are small.
Italian papers are mentioning the Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, as someone who has the qualities needed for a compromise candidate. At 55, the Filipino is one of the youngest cardinals, and he wants to enthuse young people for the church. Another name being mentioned is that of the Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, the 60-year-old Hungarian Peter Erdö.
No German candidate
A German cleric who didn't want to be named said in Rome that one should not pay too much attention to where the candidates come from - "That doesn' play much of a role in the universal church." What is more important is how a candidate is thinking of tackling the problems of the church.
"But one thing is clear," said the cleric. "It certainly won't be a German" - especially not since Joseph Ratzinger, whose spectacular resignation has made this whole process necessary, came from Germany.
The Vatican analyst, Sandro Magister, wrote in L'Espresso, "Most candidates with the best chances have understood that the joyful news of the church has been shadowed by the reality of the blatant shortcomings of the Roman Curia." People are expecting the next pope to provide answers regarding the scandals concerning sexual abuse by priests, the need for reform in the Vatican Bank and clearing up the Vatileaks affair. The Italian press speaks of 20 conspirators, aside from the pope's butler who has been found guilty in court, who were involved in the leaking of papal secrets.
Not a manager but a shepherd
But Cardinal Schönborn warns against limiting the role of the pope to its secular dimensions. Christ's representative on earth is not in the first place a manager or a CEO. "The decisive issue, I would say, is: is he a man of the Gospel?" Schönborn told journalists. "A worldwide community like the Catholic Church needs someone with manager qualities, but that's not the first thing one needs from the pope. He has to have good staff." Of course, people will note how a cardinal has managed his own diocese - and they won't vote for someone who has left a disaster behind. "That's just a matter of simply being sensible."
Some Vaticanisti see Schönborn, who is regarded as an excellent diplomat among the cardinals, as having a chance as a potential compromise candidate.