In a ceremony steeped in centuries of ritual and arcane tradition, 115 cardinals entered the marble-floored Sistine Chapel in the heart of the Vatican on Tuesday at the start of what could be days of cloistered deliberations. Only one will emerge as pope.
The race to succeed Benedict XVI, who stunned the world last month by resigning from the seat of St. Peter, is wide open, with speculation that the election, known as the conclave, could be longer than the average two to three days of those from the last century.
But as the cardinals cast their first vote and crowds outside St. Peter’s Basilica waited to see the first trails of smoke coming from a chimney on the roof of the chapel, at least three have emerged as front runners.
Leading the field is Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, who if elected would bring the papacy back to Italy after a 35-year gap in which the seat was held by two foreigners: John Paul II, a Pole, and Benedict, a German. Scola, 71, can count on up to 50 votes in the first round of voting, according to the Italian press, who benefit from behind-the-scenes, anonymous briefings from their own cardinals.
Close on his heels is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the ebullient archbishop of New York, who has the vote of 10 to 15 of his brother “princes of the church.”
These voting blocs would have to be substantially expanded during the course of the conclave – to be elected pope a cardinal needs two-thirds of the votes.
So who are these men and what would their election mean for the future of the Catholic Church as it struggles to deal with growing secularization, the scandal of pedophile priests, the rise of militant Islam, and a host of other challenges?
The Italian frontrunner
Cardinal Scola has impeccable pedigree as a “papabile” or papal candidates.
He has been both patriarch of Venice and archbishop of Milan, two posts which in the 20th century gave the church no fewer than five popes.
He was a favorite to be elected pope in 2005 following the death of John Paul II. Could it be second time lucky in 2013?
His conservative doctrinal views make him an ideological heir of Benedict XVI, although he has more progressive attitudes on issues such as immigration, and is a keen proponent of the need to open dialogue with Islam.
His election would mean continuity for the papacy at a time when many Catholics feel that it instead needs rejuvenation and reform – Scola is seen as another Benedict, albeit with a more personal touch.
“If you like Benedict XVI, you’ll love Scola; even if you don’t, you’ll find it hard not to be charmed,” wrote John Allen, a Vatican analyst with the US-based National Catholic Reporter. “He’s an extroverted, optimistic, remarkably authentic, Italian-speaking version of the [former] Pope.”
He has an iron-willed conviction in the need for continuity with Catholic tradition and has been close to conservative groups such as Communion and Liberation.
The son of a truck driver, Scola was born in 1941 in Malgrate, on the shores of Lake Como, in northern Italy.
He once swam across the lake in the middle of winter, showing signs of the determination and tenacity which later marked him out as a high-flier in the Italian church.
One of Scola’s strengths is the fact that he is not associated with the Vatican bureaucracy, whose image has been badly tarnished by infighting between Italian cardinals.
The Brazilian contender
He faces a formidable rival in the guise of Cardinal Scherer, the archbishop of São Paulo.
As a doctrinal conservative, he too is seen as an ideological heir to Benedict XVI, who as pope emeritus is enjoying retirement in a ridge-top castle overlooking a volcanic lake outside Rome.
Scherer is regarded as the head of a bloc of cardinals who will resist serious reform of the Curia, the church’s powerful governing body.
Its reputation has been damaged by reports of feuding, turf battles, and incompetence which emerged last year from the "Vati Leaks" scandal, when Benedict’s butler was caught stealing confidential papal documents and leaking them to the media. Scherer has strong ties to the Curia and has a seat on the supervisory board of the Vatican bank, another institution that has been tarnished by allegations of mismanagement and murky conduct.
The Brazilian will disappoint Catholics hoping for a more reformist, liberalizing pontiff – he takes hardline positions on contentious issues such as gay marriage. At the age of 63, he is one of the youngest cardinals, ensuring that his papacy will probably be a long one. Scherer became the archbishop of Sao Paulo in 2007 and was named a cardinal later the same year.
His fair complexion and blue eyes are testament to his European origins – he was the seventh of 13 children in a family that descended from German immigrants, born and raised in southern Brazil.
“They were an incredibly poor farming family down in the far south of the country, in Rio Grande do Sul,” says Gina Marques, Vatican correspondent for TV Globonews, a Brazilian network. “It’s a state with a very strong immigrant population from Germany.”
Scherer is unlikely to bring Carnival-style razzamatazz to the papacy, being regarded as rather aloof and not particularly charismatic. “He is seen as much more German than Brazilian,” says Ms. Marques. “He’s pretty dour, and he’s no reformist. There would be very little change of direction for the church if he is elected.”
Scherer has first-hand experience of some of the key issues facing the church – despite its population of some 124 million Catholics, Brazil is increasingly secular. Not only has the Catholic Church lost followers, it has also been challenged by the growth of the Pentecostal Church.
Scherer is very much a Vatican insider – he served for seven years as the head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops.
The ebullient American
Timothy Dolan, 63, the archbishop of New York, is a wild card in the conclave. His good humor and larger-than-life character have won him many allies, particularly in the media.
But he is regarded as having a slim chance of actually being elected pope. He may simply be too brash for many of his brother cardinals, and there is widespread resistance to the idea of an American pope – the church has traditionally tried to keep the papacy out of the hands of the superpower of the day, whether that was the Holy Roman Empire in medieval times, or the United States today.
The rest of the field
That leaves a string of at least half a dozen other cardinals who are also considered to have a fighting chance of being chosen.
The 115 red-hatted cardinals will be shut off from the outside world until they have made their choice, eating and sleeping in a purpose-built residence within the walls of the Vatican and banned from using telephones, accessing the Internet, and using social media networks like Twitter and Facebook – on pain of excommunication.
From Wednesday they will vote four times a day, with the ballot papers burned twice a day in a specially installed stove in the Sistine Chapel.
Black smoke signifies that no cardinal has the required 77 or more votes, and more balloting is required, while white smoke indicates “Habemus Papam” – we have a pope – and will send Rome into a frenzy of celebration, with church bells peeling and tens of thousands of people expected to flock to St. Peter's Square.