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Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada walks through Saint Peter's Square after a meeting in the Synod Hall at the Vatican, March 11, 2013.Tony Gentile/Reuters

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Canada's Marc Ouellet and the 114 other elector cardinals enjoyed their last moments of freedom and peace before they disappear Tuesday afternoon into the Vatican's most hallowed chambers, only to emerge when they have selected the man among them that they judge best suited to guide the battered Catholic Church into a new era.

On Sunday and Monday, cardinals were spotted here and there, some scurrying across St. Peter's Square, others celebrating masses. At least one was seen walking down the narrow streets just beyond Vatican City, apparently making a quick getaway from the whole mad scene.

The men in the elegant black cassocks, with their red sashes and red caps, are under enormous pressure because there is no obvious front-runner to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the world when he announced his retirement on Feb. 11, the first pope to do so in almost 600 years. It is likely that some of the cardinals – 24 of whom were appointed just last year and are only now connecting names with faces – still have little idea whom they will endorse.

Cardinal Ouellet was seen in public no fewer than three times since Saturday, twice moving through the vast St. Peter's Square, where he reportedly elicited little attention, and at Santa Maria in Traspontina church Sunday night, where he celebrated mass before a throng of photographers – but said nothing to the media. Even though the church is no more than a 10-minute walk from St. Peter's Basilica, he arrived by car.

Using Italian – the Quebec-born cardinal knows five languages, giving him good street cred among this peers – Cardinal Ouellet used his homily to speak about forgiveness, traditionally an important Catholic theme during Lent, leading up to Ash Wednesday and Easter.

A diplomat who was at the mass said: "He took his cue from the day's Gospel, when the father forgives the prodigal son. Think of John Paul II, who forgave his would-be assassin. … I think this was also a call to the cardinals to remake unity among them."

During the homily, Cardinal Ouellet made only one reference to the conclave in the Sistine Chapel, which is expected to last no fewer than two days and no longer than four, meaning the new pope will be known by Friday. A deeply religious man, he said that cardinals will simply be naming the candidate already chosen by God. "This is not only a big event for the Catholic Church but for the whole world, which is watching," he said.

Cardinal Ouellet is still among the top four or five candidates for the big job. But in recent days he has slipped a notch or two among the bookmakers and on the "buzz meter," the term used by Vatican watchers to describe the ebb and flow of names on the social networks and rumour mill. Still, Cardinal Ouellet is said to be well-liked by cardinals in North and Latin America. He spent much of his career in Colombia and is as sympathetic to the Latin American church as it is to him.

The other top candidates are the Italian cardinals Angelo Scola and Tarcisio Bertone of Italy, Peter Turkson of Ghana and Odilo Scherer of Brazil. But there are half a dozen credible dark-horse candidates, including several more from Latin America, any of whom could break from the rear of the pack and surge ahead in late voting.

There is a sense that a non-European pope has a good chance of making the cut. "It feels to me that the next pope will come from the Americas," said Monsignor Terry Fleming of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who is in Rome for the conclave.

Unlike a few cardinals who have made it fairly obvious that they think it's their turn to be pope, Cardinal Ouellet has been very discreet about his ambitions, though he admitted last week during a CBC interview that he has "to be ready" to become pope.

In a 2011 interview on Salt and Light, the Canadian Catholic TV channel, he said being pope "would be a nightmare" because of its "crushing responsibility." His nightmare could become a reality this week.


Longest conclave

In 1268, a conclave began that lasted nearly three years – 33 months to be exact. Pope Gregory X was elected pope, but not before residents of Viterbo, north of Rome, tore the roof off the building where the cardinals were staying and restricted their meals to bread and water to make them hurry up.

Hoping to avoid a repeat, Gregory decreed in 1274 that cardinals would only get one meal a day if the conclave stretched beyond three days, and served bread, water and wine if it went beyond eight. While the meals served these days at the Vatican's hotel are by no means gourmet, the cardinals won't go hungry – no matter how long they take picking a pope.

Shortest conclave

Before 1274, there were times when a pope was elected the same day as the death of his predecessor. After that, however,the church decided to wait at least 10 days before the first vote; later that was stretched to 15 daysto give all cardinals time to get to Rome. The quickest conclave observing the 10-day wait ruleappears to have been the 1503 election of Julius II, which took just a few hours, according to Vatican historian Ambrogio Piazzoni.

Youngest pope elected

Pope John XII was just 18 when he was elected in 955.

Oldest pope elected

The oldest popes were Celestine III (elected in 1191) and Celestine V (elected in 1294) who were both nearly 85. Benedict XVI was 78 when he was elected in 2005.

Other facts

-The last time someone from outside the College of Cardinals was elected pope was in 1378 – Urban VI was a monk and archbishop of Bari.

-Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War, left a document informing the College of Cardinals that they should hold a conclave and elect a new pope if he were taken prisoner.

-While the Italians have had a stranglehold on the papacy for centuries, there have been many exceptions aside from John Paul II (Polish) and Benedict XVI (German): Alexander VI, elected in 1492, was Spanish; Gregory III, elected in 731, was Syrian; and Adrian VI, elected in 1522, was from the Netherlands.

Reuters and Associated Press

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