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A man walks through the colonnade in St Peter's Square in the Vatican March 9, 2013.CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/Reuters

The Catholic world will almost certainly know the identity of the new pope by Friday, though theoretically as early as Tuesday afternoon, when the cardinals disappear into the Sistine Chapel to begin their voting process. Rome is buzzing with excitement because, for the first time in centuries, there is a very real chance that the cardinals will elect a non-European pope. One of the lead contenders is Quebec's Marc Ouellet and a few names from Africa and Latin America are high on the bookmakers' lists.

The winning candidate is chosen by two-third majority; in this conclave, with 115 elector cardinals, that translates into 77 votes. One of the big unknowns is whether the Italian cardinals, who form the Vatican's internal power base, will lobby hard to have one of their own returned to the papal throne after Poland's John Paul II and Germany's Benedict XVI stole the show for 35 years.

How long will this conclave last?

Since the Second World War, conclaves have lasted two to four days, with three to eight ballots in each conclave. Because there is no obvious front-runner, Vatican watchers think the 2013 edition will grind on for at least three days, maybe four, with many rounds of voting before the white smoke emerges from the Sistine Chapel.

Why is there no front-runner?

Thomas Reese, analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, has a few theories. One is that 24 of the 115 elector cardinals were appointed last year and the newbies "are still matching faces to bios" – that is, they probably don't know yet whom they are going to back. Another is that the 28 Italian elector cardinals, who could make or break the election if they were to vote as a bloc, are divided. "One faction is devoted to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone," Mr. Reese says, "and the other faction thinks he is the worst [Vatican] Secretary of State ever." Still another theory is that the elector cardinals are filled with second raters, with no standout talent. But some of the Italian Vatican watchers, among them Marco Tosatti of La Stampa newspaper, thinks the opposite and that lack of a front-runner signals a glut of "excellent" choices.

What do the bookmakers say?

Betting on the next pope has become hugely popular. The betting site, which tallies up the odds posted by the various bookmakers, on Sunday gave these five names (in order) the best odds: Angelo Scola of Italy; Peter Turkson of Ghana, Tarcisio Bertone of Italy, Odilo Scherer of Brazil and Marc Ouellet of Canada. Cardinal Ouellet's best odds (from the Paddy Power betting site) were 10-to-1, meaning a $10 bet would win you $100 if he were to become pope. While the odds list is a moving target, the unusual name among the Top Five is Cardinal Bertone, who is not liked by many cardinals because they think the Curia, the Vatican's administrative body, has become a mess under him.

Who are the credible long-shot contenders?

Dark-horse cardinals, with odds typically ranging from 15-to-1 to 25-to-1, include Sean O'Malley of the United States, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina and Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines.

What was the longest conclave, and the shortest?

The longest in modern history – the Vatican considers the 1700s the beginning of the "modern" era – was 181 days, for the 1740 election of Benedict XIV. It was so long that four of the 51 elector cardinals died during the conclave. The shortest was the two-day, three-ballot wonder in 1939, when Pius XII emerged as the prince of princes.

What's new at the Sistine Chapel?

The Sistine Chapel has undergone a radical transformation. The most striking feature is the two ugly ovens, in the rear of the chapel, connected to the long copper pipes that will release the smoke from the chapel roof. The stove on the right is used to burn the paper ballots after the voting rounds; the one on the left is used to produce the smoke – black for an inconclusive vote, white for the winner. A chemical is used to turn the smoke white, though in 2005 it came out grey. The other striking feature is the raised wooden platform, about one metre high, which covers about two-thirds of the chapel. It was built to make it easier for the cardinals, most of them elderly men, to reach their seats, since the chapel is not on a uniform level. By Sunday, the names of the elector cardinals were all on display on their desks, which are covered in red and white linen. The names are arranged by order of seniority.

What is the voting routine?

The first ballot starts at 4:45 p.m., Rome time, on Tuesday. Assuming a winner is not declared – no cardinal in recent centuries has won on the first ballot – voting will take place each of the subsequent days, starting 9:30 a.m. and again 4:50 p.m. When the identity of the new pope is known to the cardinals, he takes his oath, is fitted with his new wardrobe from the clerical tailor Gammarelli of Rome (which has made vestments in small, medium and large to accommodate the full range of potential body sizes) and chooses his papal name. He then will make his way to the St. Peter's Basilica balcony that faces the square, after which he will greet the crowd after the lead cardinal announces: "Habemus papum" (We have a pope). That whole process will take about 45 minutes.

How will the conclave keep its secrets?

The windows of the Sistine Chapel, and those of the soaring rooms nearby, were being covered with white paint on Sunday to prevent photographers with long lenses on rooftops from getting a glimpse of the proceedings. Electronic scrambling devices have been installed to prevent anyone involved in the voting process – cardinals, assistants, the Swiss Guards – from communicating with the outside world. The goal is to prevent a repeat of the 2005 fiasco, when a German cardinal managed to leak the cardinals' choice of Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope, allowing a German TV network to reveal his name before the habemus papum announcement was made.

Do elector cardinals always vote?

Not if they are too ill to make it to Rome, or too late. Several cardinals in the early part of the last century were locked out of conclaves for arriving late. Incredibly, the cardinal from Quebec, Louis-Nazaire Bégin, was locked out of both 1914 and 1922 conclaves for his tardiness.