One hundred fifteen cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will march Monday into the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and will not emerge from seclusion until they have chosen a pope. The voting process of the conclave, as it is called, is steeped in ancient tradition and secrecy. But, there are issues and concerns that point to the kind of man they might want to be pope.
The process of choosing a pope is somewhat of a mystery to the general public. The public sees the finished work, but nobody except the insiders truly know how it was done.
Colin Donovan, vice president for theology at the Catholic Church-run Eternal Word Television Network in Alabama, says that while the cardinals look for divine guidance in reaching their choice, the electoral process is run by men.
"The church does not pretend that, you know, a heavenly sign comes and the pope is chosen in that way," he said. "Certainly the church believes that grace, that divine providence, is at work. But it is also a very human process."
Speculation on the outcome of the conclave is rife. Bookmakers in Ireland and Britain are even offering odds on various cardinals. But conclaves have a habit of fooling outsiders' predictions.
Christopher Bellitto, a church historian who teaches at Kean University in New Jersey, says that while the cardinals are electing a world religious figure, they also bring their own local concerns into the conclave.
"At the same time, they are asking, how will this man play in my home diocese, how will this work in my home diocese," he said. "And probably the cardinals, like many bishops, want a pope who is activist in the sense of putting forward a 'bella figura,' a good face. But they do not want a pope who will interfere in the minutiae of his diocese."
Some cardinals, particularly from Africa, may see a dialogue with Islam as a top priority. Others will put world poverty at the top of the list of concerns. Still others want the focus to be declining church membership and evangelization.
No one campaigns outright for pope. Instead, cardinals gather in small groups to sound each other out and discuss issues of concern to them in their parts of the world.
Monsignor Bryan Ferme, dean of the school of canon law at The Catholic University of America, says it is through these consultations that voting blocs begin to coalesce and form in the conclave.
"I think those particular preoccupations and those realities on the part of cardinals will certainly, as the discussions go on, lead to a certain amount of alignment, if you like, between these various countries and various areas that may have a very noted and significant effect on the outcome of the conclave," he said.
One school of thought holds that the next pope will be on the older side of the ecclesiastical generation. This theory says that after the 26 years of Pope John Paul II, the cardinals want a pope who will reign for a short period and not be too innovative. But, as Mr. Bellitto says, that kind of choice can backfire.
"The cardinals have to be careful what they wish for," he said. "Leo XIII was elected at the age of 68, and lived to 93, a 25-year reign. John XXIII in 1958 in his 70s was elected pope as a caretaker or transitional pope. He called Vatican II, and that blew the lid off the whole thing."
Monsignor Ferme adds that it is also a mistake to believe that because Pope John Paul II named all but three of the cardinal electors, as they are called, that the conclave will come up with a carbon copy of the previous pontiff.
"It is very difficult to say, and I do not think it is true, in fact, to say, in fact, that just because this pontiff appointed 114 of the 117 that they are all made in his mold," he said. "They all respect him and certainly would agree with the basic theological and ecclesiastical approach of the pontiff. But they are independent thinkers.
There is no time limit on a conclave. But most analysts believe the cardinals will make their decision in less than five days.