VATICAN CITY -- Cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel today to elect the next pope amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the Catholic Church has seen in decades: There's no front-runner, no indication how long voting will last and no sense a single man has what it takes to fix the many problems.
On the eve of the vote, cardinals offered wildly different assessments of what they're looking for in the next pontiff and how close they are to a decision. It was evidence Benedict XVI's surprise resignation has continued to destabilize the church leadership and his final appeal for unity may go unheeded, at least in the early rounds of voting.
Cardinals held their final closed-door debate Monday over whether the church needs more of a manager to clean up the Vatican's bureaucratic mess or a pastor to inspire the 1.2 billion faithful in times of crisis. The fact not everyone got a chance to speak was a clear sign there's still unfinished business on the eve of the conclave.
"This time around, there are many different candidates, so it's normal that it's going to take longer than the last time," Francisco Cardinal Javier Errazuriz of Chile told The Associated Press.
"There are no groups, no compromises, no alliances, just each one with his conscience voting for the person he thinks is best, which is why I don't think it will be over quickly."
None of that has prevented a storm of chatter over who's ahead.
The buzz in the papal stakes swirled around Angelo Cardinal Scola, an Italian seen as favoured by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favourite of Vatican-based insiders intent on preserving the status quo.
Scola is affable and Italian, but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia. That gives him clout with those seeking to reform the nerve centre of the church that has been discredited by revelations of leaks and complaints from cardinals in the field Rome is inefficient and unresponsive to their needs.
Scherer seems to be favoured by Latin Americans and the Curia. He has a solid handle on the Vatican's finances, sitting on the governing commission of the Vatican bank, as well as the Holy See's main budget committee.
As a non-Italian, the archbishop of Sao Paolo would be expected to name an Italian as secretary of state -- the Vatican No. 2 who runs day-to-day affairs -- another plus for Vatican-based cardinals who would want one of their own running the shop.
The pastoral camp seems to be focusing on two Americans, New York archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston archbishop Sean O'Malley. Neither has Vatican experience. Dolan has acknowledged his Italian isn't strong -- seen as a handicap for a job in which the lingua franca of day-to-day work is Italian.
Canadian Marc Cardinal Ouellet is well-respected, stemming from his job at the important Vatican office that vets bishop appointments.
If the leading names fail to reach the 77 votes required for victory in the first few rounds of balloting, any number of surprise candidates could come to the fore as alternatives.
It all starts today with the cardinals checking into the Santa Marta residence on the edge of the Vatican gardens. The rooms are simple and impersonal, but a step up from the cramped conditions the cardinals faced before the hotel was put to use in 2005, when long lines would form at the Apostolic Palace for using bathrooms.
At 10 a.m., the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, will lead the celebration of the Pro eligendo Pontificie Mass -- the Mass for the election of a pope -- inside St. Peter's Basilica, joined by the 115 cardinals who will vote.
This is followed at 4:30 p.m. with a procession into the Sistine Chapel, with the cardinals intoning the Litany of Saints, the hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the saints to help guide their voting. After another chant calling on the Holy Spirit to intervene, the cardinals take the oath of secrecy, followed by a meditation delivered by elderly Maltese cardinal Prosper Grech.
Then the master of papal liturgical ceremonies gives the order "Extra omnes" -- "Everyone out" -- and all but those taking part in the conclave leave the chapel's frescoed walls.
During the voting that ensues, each cardinal writes his choice on a rectangular piece of paper inscribed with the words 'Eligo in summen pontificem' -- Latin for 'I elect as Supreme Pontiff.'
Holding the folded ballot up in the air, each approaches the altar and places it on a saucer, before tipping it into an oval urn, as he intones these words: "I call as my witness, Christ the Lord, who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected."
After the votes are counted, and the outcomes announced, the papers are bound together with a needle and thread, each ballot pierced through the word Eligo.
The ballots are then placed in a cast-iron stove and burned with a special chemical.
That's when all eyes will turn to the six-foot-high copper chimney erected atop the Sistine Chapel to pipe out puffs of smoke to tell the world if there's a new pope.
Black smoke means "not yet" -- the likely outcome after Round 1. White smoke means the 266th pope has been chosen.
The first puffs of smoke should emerge sometime around 8 p.m. today. If they are black, voting will continue, four rounds each day, until a pope is elected.
-- The Associated Press