What would appear at first glance to be a cakewalk for a staunch conservative, to follow in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI, will be anything but Vatican experts say.
Of the 117 cardinal electors, 67 were named by the outgoing pontiff, and the other 50 by his beloved predecessor and ideological soulmate John Paul II.
More than half of them are European including 28 Italians, which points strongly to a successor in the same mould as Benedict, who yearned for a rebirth of Christian faith on the Old Continent.
But the arithmetic is misleading, given the water that has flowed under the bridges of the Tiber since the 2005 conclave that elevated the Polish pope’s German protege after just four voting sessions.
The gaffes and scandals that came to characterise Benedict’s papacy, combined with unflattering comparisons between the introverted German and the charismatic Pole, have laid the foundations for divisions and dissent.
Benedict, who took office as the Roman Catholic Church appeared cut adrift, proved unable to quell public relations disasters, came up short in addressing an avalanche of scandals over child sex abuse by priests and made only modest progress in efforts to clean up the Vatican’s murky financial dealings.
But insiders have pointed to the “Vatileaks” scandal, in which the pope’s butler stole documents containing revelations about corruption and mismanagement that turned up in a tell-all book, as the last straw.
More than any of the other crises, Vatileaks underscored the cerebral Benedict’s failure to stamp his authority over the Curia, the Church’s secretive and powerful governing body dominated by feuding Italian clerics.
“The scandals that brought enormous pain to Benedict XVI had the effect of digging up divisions,” Franca Giansoldati wrote in the Rome daily Il Messaggero on Thursday.
A “wave of emotion” over the death of John Paul II speeded Benedict XVI’s election, she said, something that cannot be matched for someone who is simply retiring at the age of 85.
When they gather for the conclave in mid-March, the cardinals will be under pressure to choose a reformer, someone to fix the “central machinery” of the Curia, said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert and staunch supporter of Benedict who writes for the Italian weekly L’Espresso.
“A great majority are in favour of a strong leader with a strong public presence and a capacity to govern,” Magister told AFP, noting that cardinals outside the Curia — most of them bishops in overseas dioceses — “will weigh very heavily in favour of reform”.
The 28 Italian cardinals are not the “compact group” that they once were, he added.
What is more, Benedict reinstated an old rule requiring a two-thirds majority to elect the next pope — or 78 of the 117 possible this time.
South African cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, who is among the handful dubbed “papabile” or possible successors, said the Church was in a state of “profound crisis” and needed a new pope to bring about “spiritual renewal”.
“The determining factor is he must have the wisdom and energy to confront the challenges that await the Church in every corner of the globe,” he told Italian daily La Stampa.
“Church institutions should help evangelisation, not slow it down,” he said. “People, and young people in particular, are waiting for words of truth from the Church.”
Magister, like many Vatican watchers, dismissed the chances of an African or Latin American rising to the top, predicting that the race would come down to Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola, 72, versus Marc Ouellet, the 67-year-old former archbishop of Quebec who heads the influential Congregation of Bishops.
London bookmaker Paddy Power makes Ouellet, described as “good pals” with Benedict, the frontrunner, with Scola as his main contender.
Meanwhile speculation is mounting over how the new pontiff will deal with Benedict’s future status as a former pope living out his years within the Vatican walls after he retires on February 28.
The pope’s decision to take up residency in a disused Vatican convent, which Magister described as “provocative”, sets up an unprecedented situation.
With the Vatican insisting he will be a paragon of discretion and Benedict saying that he will remain “hidden from the world”, others are not so sure.
Also adding to the intrigue was an announcement Thursday that Benedict’s closest confidant Georg Gaenswein will continue as his personal secretary while also overseeing the new pope’s household.
Benedict promoted Gaenswein to prefect of the papal household in December — a move interpreted now as a key part of his plans to resign.
Prominent German theologian Hans Kung warned that Benedict could become a “shadow pope”, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica: “I would have preferred for him to have chosen to retire into meditation and prayer in Bavaria. Contacts and conversations will be inevitable if he stays at the Vatican.”