No Clear Front-Runner For Next Pope On The Eve Of Cardinals' Conclave

There's a growing sense of excitement and trepidation among visitors to St. Peter's Square on the eve of the conclave to elect a new pope. The 115 Catholic cardinals who will cast ballots break down into two groups: the so-called Roman party, members of the Vatican administration known as the curia, and the so-called reformers, cardinals from outside Rome. The cardinals have said there is no strong consensus around any one candidate so there will probably be several rounds of voting over several days. A cardinal must receive two-thirds of the vote to become pope.

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This is a big week at the Vatican. The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will enter the Sistine Chapel tomorrow for a conclave to elect the next pope. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome and has been talking with the faithful.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Small groups of people wander through St. Peter's Square. There's a sense of excitement, but also trepidation. These pilgrims came all the way from Brazil. Sister Paola Schneider is praying the cardinals will be inspired to make the right choice.

SISTER PAOLA SCHNEIDER: Only the Holy Spirit has say in this moment who can became the pope because this is not a politic issues. This is a church issues.

POGGIOLI: Dutchman Peter Broch believes the cardinals are pragmatic.

PETER BROCH: The cardinals realize that the church needs a new pope who is more in contact with what is going on in the world.

POGGIOLI: The papal election has unleashed a torrent of speculation. Vatican analyst Marco Politi says modern-day polls are useless in this arcane, centuries-old ritual.

MARCO POLITI: The conclave is really extraordinary mix of politics, prayer, religious feeling. People enter with a vision for the future, but also with some theological or personal enmity. It can't be compared to a secular presidential contest.

POGGIOLI: The cardinal's break down into two fronts: The so-called Roman party, members of the Vatican administration known as the Curia, and the so-called reformers, cardinals from outside Rome. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter says the reformers want to restore good governance in a Vatican rife with corruption, intrigue and infighting.

JOHN ALLEN: They are looking to shake things up. It's in the direction of greater transparency, greater accountability. They want people to be held accountable for performance and, in general, sort of bringing 21st-century principles of how to make the trains run on time. I mean, they don't like the glacial pace of which things happen over here.

POGGIOLI: Paradoxically, the two factions do not break down along geographical lines. The Roman party is said to be promoting Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, who has a long experience in the Curia, while the reformers, led by several American cardinals, are said to look favorably on the Italian Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan and, therefore, outside the Curia. But if neither candidate gets a two-thirds majority in early balloting, everything could become fluid, alliances shifting and compromised candidates emerging.

ALLEN: There is a degree of concern among some of these cardinals that this could be a protracted conclave - that is, one that goes on a while - because every cardinal you talked to will tell you that there is not yet a strong consensus around one figure, that there's a fairly lengthy list, actually, of potential popes they area looking at.

POGGIOLI: The names cropping up this week were Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, president of the European Bishops, and Austria's Christoph Schoenborn, who scores high for his handling of clerical sex abuse scandals. And for the first time in history, even American cardinals are being proposed: New York's Timothy Dolan and Boston's Sean O'Malley. The last two are really long shots, but analysts agree no pope will be elected without the American support. Marco Politi says whoever wins, the next pope will have to introduce major reforms and work much more closely with the world's bishops.

POLITI: This means that a broad part of the conclave cardinals want real collegiality in future.

POGGIOLI: That's the long-forgotten principle promoted by the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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