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'Cardinals are pretty shrewd': Subtle, secretive process to choose new pope set to move quickly

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, center, talks to other cardinals after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation Monday at the Vatican.

The process of electing a new pope is clear, but few know what exactly goes on behind the Vatican’s closed doors. Pope Benedict XVI's announcement on Monday morning that he will leave office at the end of February may have taken everyone by surprise, but with the Vatican promising a new pope by Easter, events are likely to move quickly, experts say.

The new pope will be elected by the College of Cardinals, a body of around 120 men. They will vote at a special meeting, called a Papal Conclave, after Benedict’s resignation on Feb. 28. Those under the age of 80 will be eligible to vote in ballots at the Sistine Chapel. The vote is secret and conducted amid tight security.

L'Osservatore Romano via AP

Cardinals congregate in April 2005 in the Bologna Hall at the Vatican ahead of their election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

Little is known about how cardinals reach their decision. Campaigning is not allowed, but a subtle form of electioneering still happens. Prior to the Papal Conclave, the cardinals meet in congregations to discuss the succession among themselves. Quite often they divide according to what languages they speak.

The question they are certain to ask: What type of pope does the Catholic Church need? The answers will vary according to whether they come from conservative or more liberal wings of the church. At this point groups will form around candidates, but in a subtle way. 

John Wilkins, former editor of international Catholic newspaper The Tablet, says candidates emerge without personal preferences being stated aloud.

“Cardinals are pretty shrewd,” he said. “They keep their cards close to their chest. They will make up their own minds.”

So what factors will the cardinals consider? Nationality may be important. There has never been a non-European leader of the church despite the continent being home to just a quarter of the world’s Catholics. In contrast, just over half of all Catholics live in Latin America.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was a serious contender when Joseph Ratzinger was chosen in 2005.

But nationality may not be such a pressing issue for the voting cardinals as it is for outsiders -- half of the cardinals are from Europe.

Instead, Vatican watchers think the cardinals will be looking for a strong leader. One criticism repeatedly leveled at Benedict is that he failed to get to grips with the papal bureaucracy, the Roman Curia.

Now that Pope Benedict has stepped down, it's unclear who will replace him or even how Pope Benedict will be addressed in the wake of his departure. New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the only American so far being considered to possibly replace Benedict. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

Catholic scholar Michael Walsh says the cardinals will be looking for a leader who can govern the church.

“They need someone to sort it out. The only person who will work is a Curia official.” In other words: a Vatican insider.

A power base in the Vatican is certainly important. Ratzinger was one of the most influential men in the Roman Curia before becoming pope and was seen as Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man.

Although he will not be voting for his successor, there is little doubt Benedict’s influence will endure: He has filled the College of Cardinals with elderly, conservative European men -- just like himself.

Javier Barbancho / AFP - Getty Images

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.

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