No front-runner as cardinals face intense selection challenge

Formally speaking, the race for the next pope doesn’t open until 9.30am on Monday, when all the cardinals who have made it to Rome by then will meet for the first time in what’s called a “general congregation”.

No front-runner as cardinals face intense selection challenge

The agenda is to go over the rules for the looming conclave, and to talk in general terms about the issues facing the Church and the qualities the next pope will need.

The first task is to set the start date for the conclave, which many cardinals would like to see begin soon, perhaps Mar 9 or 10. Quietly, however, the campaigning is already under way and has been ever since Feb 11, when Pope Benedict XVI made his resignation announcement.

Outside the general congregation meetings, cardinals are already getting together across Rome in twos and threes, even 10s and 20s, to hammer out what they believe the next pope will need to do — and, of course, who he ought to be.

Held in colleges, apartments, and various ecclesiastical venues, the number and the candour of those meetings will intensify as the conclave draws nearer. When Benedict was elected in 2005, most cardinals said these meetings were where much of the political sausage was ground.

The fact that campaign season is upon us, however, doesn’t make the outcome any easier to handicap.

The 2013 conclave is clearly different from the last one, in that there’s no one akin to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the clear front-runner heading into the vote.

By virtue of his intellect, vast experience, and close association to Pope John Paul II, he seemed to many cardinals the obvious choice.

This time, no one occupies pole position in quite the same way, making the challenge of arriving at the magical two-thirds majority of the 115 voting cardinals more intense.

Last time, only two cardinals had ever been in a conclave before. This time, 50 of the 115 are veterans, all of whom feel they know the lay of the land and ought to have a say in the way things shake out. That might augur a more protracted process.

At this stage, what we have are a number of candidates who seem plausible. Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, for instance, is cut from the same intellectual cloth as Benedict XVI but with a slightly more robust popular touch, and considerably more experience as a local pastor than Benedict had.

Now 71, Scola also created a platform for dialogue with Muslims, something certain to figure near the top of the next pope’s to-do list.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, is seen as a deeply spiritual man with a razor-sharp mind. Ouellet, 68, spent 12 years in Latin America and speaks six languages.

There’s also the irrepressible Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a showman who upends traditional stereotypes of cardinals as aloof and aristocratic. At 63, he is a back-slapping, baby-kissing force of nature, with a reputation as an effective salesman for the Church’s message.

Unlike normal elections, there are no polls to track for a conclave, no campaign war chests or debate performances or crowd size estimates to provide a handle on which candidates are gaining ground or losing it.

Whether one of these three men will break through the crowd, therefore, remains to be seen.

One thing does seem certain — the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church ought to have a busy, and fascinating, next few days.

*John L Allen Jr is senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter in the US. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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