The task of choosing the next pope falls to 115 red-robed cardinals, known by the faithful as the "princes" of the Catholic Church. Their average age is 72 — and they are all men. We examine how they came to have this massive responsibility, and how some Catholics resent their exclusive monopoly over electing pontiffs.
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. The last time Catholic cardinals shut themselves in the Sistine Chapel to choose a new pope, they elected a man widely seen as a transitional figure. Pope Benedict was a European leader of a church whose membership has spread elsewhere. His reign proved to be relatively short, though he elevated many of the church leaders who now choose his successor.
NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the men behind an ancient election system, choosing a leader to face may very modern challenges.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Visitors to Rome in recent days could be forgiven for concluding they've stumbled across a bizarre new form of hunting. The hunters are journalists from far and wide. The prey are the mostly elderly cardinals who're about to elect a new pope.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (French spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oui.
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REEVES: The hunters are tireless, tracking down cardinals and pounding them with questions about who among them might succeed Benedict XVI, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to retire. Anyone believed to have even a slim chance of getting the job gets special attention.
CARDINAL SEAN O'MALLEY: (Italian spoken)
REEVES: At Mass here on Sunday, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, delivered his address to the rattle of camera shutters.
O'MALLEY: Let us pray that the Holy Spirit illumine the church to choose a new pope. Will...
REEVES: Today, cardinal hunting season ends. The red-robed cardinals will be locked inside the Vatican to begin voting. White smoke wafting from the Sistine Chapel roof will signal they've elected a new pope.
Vatican watchers say it's hard to say who he'll be or how long this will take. That doesn't deter everyone from speculating.
Grace Rossi, a pensioner from Rome, is soaking up the atmosphere in St. Peter's Square.
Who do you think will be elected? I mean who are you expecting?
GRACE ROSSI: Italian from Milan.
REEVES: She's referring to Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, who's widely seen as a strong contender.
Are you happy about that?
ROSSI: No, because the church is universal, you see. We need people that speak to the world, all the world.
REEVES: Italians form a quarter of the College of Cardinals who'll elect the pontiff. The Americans are the second largest group, with 11. Cardinals are appointed by the pope and include his closest advisors. They've elected the pontiff since 1179.
The system was introduced to stop pope-making from being paralyzed by violent feuds between noble families, monarchs and the clergy. This time, 115 cardinals will vote; those aged 80 or above on the day Pope Benedict resigned aren't eligible.
The cardinals fall into two broad groups: those in the Curia - the Vatican's Rome-based administration - and the rest. There are internal tensions, stoked by the current crisis in the church.
FATHER THOMAS REESE: It's become clear through the Vatican leaks, the doc - leaking of the documents out of the Vatican, that there are serious divisions in the Vatican Curia.
REEVES: Father Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter has made a study of papal conclaves and the cardinals who take part. He says there's also a division between the Curia cardinals and those from outside Rome.
REESE: Because the cardinals outside of Rome are seeing all these stories about scandals and corruption and the Vatican, and they want the place cleaned up.
REEVES: Choosing from among their own ranks isn't easy for the cardinals.
MICHAEL WALSH: It's a slightly difficult situation for them, frankly.
REEVES: Professor Michael Walsh is author of a book called "The Cardinals." He says there's much the cardinals cannot do during the conclave, like campaigning openly or overt deal-making.
WALSH: They're not allowed to impose, for instance, policies on a pope, you know, while the election's taking place. If somebody is emerging, they say - they can't go up to him and say we'll vote for you provided you do X, Y or Z.
REEVES: Walsh's an advocate of church reform, arguing the Vatican's far too powerful and remote from its 1.2 billion congregation. He's not alone.
MARILYN HATTON: My mission is to have women's voice heard in this whole papal conclave.
REEVES: Marilyn Hatton, from Australia, campaigns for the ordination of women. She dislikes the way the pope's chosen by a secretive group of senior male clerics.
HATTON: I think it's an exclusive, elitist club. I mean we don't get into the conclave. And yet we're half the population, we're probably two-thirds of the congregation in any Catholic church.
REEVES: Back in St Peter's Square, Grace Rossi knows what she would do if she was allowed to vote.
ROSSI: Well, I would like to have a pope from Africa.
REEVES: Rossi doubts the cardinals will follow her advice.
ROSSI: I mean, you know, they're old people, and they think with old minds. We need young people.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.