The cardinals of the Roman Catholic church held their last meeting on Monday before the conclave to elect the next pope and used it to try to agree on the qualities they sought in the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion baptised Catholics.
Though two of their number — cardinals Angelo Scola of Italy and Odilo Scherer from Brazil — began as favourites, all the signs were that the field was exceptionally open, and that the conclave could go on for longer than usual in recent times.
Pope Benedict, who resigned last month, was chosen in 2005 in just four ballots. But the cardinals had had months, if not years, to discuss the succession during the protracted illness that led to the death of his predecessor, John Paul II.
This time, the leadership of the church has been caught off guard by Benedict’s sensational departure — the first voluntary resignation of a pope for more than seven centuries.
The archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, pointed to another factor: “Last time around, there was a man of stature three or four times that of any other cardinal. 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.”
Not all the cardinals who wanted to speak at Monday morning’s 10th and final session of the preliminary discussions were able to do so, and a vote was taken on whether to hold a further session in the afternoon. It was decided to go straight to the conclave instead, but the episode highlighted the uncertainty that persists among many of the 115 cardinal-electors.
A Vatican spokesman said: “The expectations of the new pope and his profile was a recurring theme” in Monday’s speeches. But the cardinals were also said to have discussed the Vatican bank whose president was sensationally dismissed last year.
His removal was one in a long succession of controversies, scandals and gaffes that marked Benedict’s troubled papacy. Some of the cardinals put the blame on the Roman Curia, the central administration of the church, and want a pope who can take a much firmer grip on its officials.
Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is seen by many as the man for the job, according to sources close to the deliberations. The same sources indicate Scherer, a Brazilian and member of the commission that oversees the Vatican bank, as the initial choice of the curial insiders.
If he were to be elected, he would be the first non-European pope for well over 1,000 years. Scola would be the first Italian pope since John Paul I who reigned for only 33 days in 1978.
Both factions, however, will have thought of substitutes in case neither man gains momentum in the early stages. Traditionally, favourites who fail to attract a substantial number of votes in the first couple of ballots are swiftly abandoned.
At that point, their backers can either transfer their support to a cardinal of similar outlook or, as happened in 2005, back a less controversial figure of deep spirituality.
Eight years ago, and lacking a fall-back, the liberals who had supported Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, are thought to have switched their allegiances to an Argentinian cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio.
On this occasion, various second-tier contenders have attracted attention. Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has been mentioned as an option for the curial faction. Peter Erdo, the archbishop of Budapest, would be an appealing alternative for the other side. The Vatican’s chief theological watchdog, Marc Ouellet, remains a potential compromise candidate.
There are plenty of others to choose from. Some cardinals have signalled they are looking for someone to cut through the Catholic church’s many problems with the offer of a vigorous, optimistic Christianity such as that radiated by New York’s Timothy Dolan.
But a senior church source said: “Dolan is just too brash to be acceptable to the Europeans.” The traditional wisdom is that no US cardinal is papabile (literally pope-able) because it would mean aligning the world’s biggest Christian denomination with its only superpower.
On this occasion, however, the virtues of Sean O’Malley, the bearded Capuchin friar who is archbishop of Boston, have been widely discussed. They include prodigious language skills and an impressively thorough approach to tackling the issue of clerical sex abuse.