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Late dinners, grappa: The behind-the-scenes work of picking a pope

L'Osservatore Romano

Now that they have bid farewell to Pope Benedict XVI, the cardinals begin the work of choosing his replacement. It begins in earnest Monday with official meetings and off-the-record dinners where alliances are forged and names are considered, experts say.

Let the papal politicking begin. The College of Cardinals will meet Monday for the first time since the pope's resignation.

Officially, the princes of the church will gather every day to deal with important ecclesiastical business -- setting a start date for the conclave, receiving reports on the state of church affairs around the world.

But Vaticanologists say the most significant discussions will unfold at private apartments, in restaurant back rooms, around the coffee urn, as cardinals meet in small groups to suss out who among them will be the front-runners to become the next pope when they are locked up for voting some time before March 20.

"All the real business takes place at night over anisette and grappa," said Christopher Bellitto, associate professor of history at Kean University.


Gossip will be traded and names will be Googled. Coalitions will start to form, and lists of first and second choices will start to take form.

L'Osservatore Romano

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, shown here with Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, will preside over the general congregations that start Monday and give papal candidates a forum to shine.

"This is the chance, especially for the cardinals out of Rome who don't travel a lot, to get to know the other cardinals better," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

Once or twice a day, the cardinals will converge on the Vatican for what are called general congregations, formal meetings that could touch on a wide range of worldly and spiritual issues -- from reforming the Roman bureaucracy to the church's "new evangelization" ethos.

A cardinal can boost or doom his chances during these confabs, which are presided over by the non-voting dean of the college, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, experts say.

Make a dismissive comment about the sexual abuse crisis and a potential candidate could lose the support of the Americans or Irish. One who stumbles on the subject of Islam could be written off by the African cardinals. But a lower-profile cardinal who impresses the group with his eloquence or energy could suddenly have dark-horse status.

After the congregations, the caucusing continues in informal, intimate settings.

"You're not going to do this in McDonald's," Reese said. "This is where the Roman cardinals have the home-court advantage because they have apartments, they probably have a cook, they know a restaurant with a private room where they can have three or four people for dinner."

James Weiss, a theology professor at Boston College, said it's an intricate dance, and this time there will be an overlay of intrigue because of the Vatican document leak scandal that exposed infighting and back-stabbing in the church hierarchy.

An internal report that may address accusations of financial skulduggery, sexual activity and even blackmail is being kept secret until the new pope is chosen.

"What's going to complicate this is they don't know who they can trust any more," Weiss said. "They know something bad was happening at the highest levels of the Vatican, but they don't know who. The level of distrust has not been this great since 1730."

Still, if recent history is any indication, by the time the 115 cardinal-electors actually go into the conclave -- not to emerge until the puff of white smoke is seen -- there will be a handful of front-runners.

It's possible none of those names are the one that will be announced outside St. Peter's. Two early leaders can cancel each other out, forcing their supporters to look for a compromise candidate who can get the two-thirds vote needed to score a pair of red shoes, Weiss said.

He said that unconfirmed reports out of the 1978 conclave -- all the ballots are technically secret, but there's always the possibility of post-election leaks -- had nearly 50 old-guard cardinals coalescing around a conservative.

When they realized their man would never reach the threshold, everyone started moving toward a more electable moderate, and Poland's Karol Wojtyła, championed by an Austrian cardinal, suddenly jumped from 18 to 30-plus votes. He became the new focus of the conclave and, eventually, Pope John Paul II.

While there is alliance-forging during the actual conclave, the opportunities are more limited, experts said.

There are two ballots every morning and night, and the process is tedious and time-consuming, with each cardinal taking an oath before casting a vote and the totals being tallied three times. It all happens in the Sistine Chapel, where silence is mandatory. There is no Internet access, so checking Google to see if a certain cardinal really said a certain something a few years back is impossible.

Jerry Lampen / Reuters file

There is a lot of politicking to be done before white smoke rises from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, as shown here in 2005.

Vatican watchers say the quicker the conclave happens, the less chance outsider cardinals will have time to research and talk up their colleagues. That likely benefits the cardinals of the Roman Curia who have the most to lose from major upheaval.

Modern conclaves have not lasted more than a few days -- not surprising, since the whole point of them is to make a quick decision.

They were created by Pope Gregory X after a papal election that dragged on for nearly three years, from 1268 to 1271, infuriating the people of the medieval town of Viterbo, where pontiffs lived at the time.

"The people of Viterbo had finally had it and locked the cardinals in a big hall until they elected someone. They still wouldn't elect, so the good people of Viterbo ripped the roof off the hall. They still wouldn't elect, so then they started to give them only bread and water," Bellitto said.

The townspeople finally threatened to start throwing garbage down on the cardinals if they didn't settle their differences, and "lo and behold, they elected Pope Gregory," he said.

Gregory decided that all future elections would be done by conclave with the cardinals cut off from the world until they picked a new leader.

For this election, a repeat of Viterbo isn't in the cards, but some speculate it could be the longest conclave of the last 100 years.

"While there are many possible candidates, there is no front-runner or front-runners, as there was in 2005," said NBC News Vatican expert George Weigel. "There's also a sense that this is a critical moment in the church's history, the cardinals aren't all that familiar with each other, and thus there's a concern to take the time required to get the decision right."

He guessed that if it isn't over in two days, it could take as long as two weeks, but Weiss thinks the cardinals are under pressure to get it done in three days or less for public relations reasons.

"One thing they're all concerned about is maintaining face," he said. "And once it goes beyond three days, the world knows the divisions are running pretty deep."

Ettore Ferrari / EPA

The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

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