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Papal Conclave Gets Under Way At The Vatican

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Cardinals have spent the morning praying in Rome as they started the ancient ritual of electing a new pope.

MONTAGNE: The actual voting takes place out of sight in the Sistine Chapel, so NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is watching for every sign that is visible.

Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So what did you hear or possibly discover when the cardinals celebrated Mass?

POGGIOLI: Well, what we heard is the homily that was delivered by the dean of the College of Cardinals, the Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who's over 80. His message was simple. He implored that the cardinals find a good shepherd for the church, an evangelizer who can promote the church throughout the world. He also made a very strong appeal for church unity. And there were sharp divisions in the pre-conclave debates over the Vatican management itself.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk a little bit about that, and also talk about the management of this event. How, if at all, has this election process adapted to the modern world, Sylvia?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's very elaborate. There's the hypnotic Gregorian litany, with which the cardinals invoke the help of the saints to guide them in their papal choice. There's the amazing bright red vestments, straight out of the Renaissance paintings, that line the Vatican halls. And there's Michelangelo's fresco, "The Last Judgment," that's a constant reminder of the horrors of perpetual damnation.

But there's also the modern ritual of politicking. Rules say no cardinal can openly campaign, but cardinals are allowed to have private conversations - in Latin, that's mumuratio. And when they're not inside the Sistine, the cardinals will be busy murmuring in each other's ears over coffee or pasta. And since there are no big frontrunners, but many potential popes, this murmuring could be the key to creating new alliances for a particular candidate.

MONTAGNE: Well, Sylvia, let's talk about that. I mean, granting the voting is very secret, or expected to be, who are the cardinals who are seen at this moment in time as favorites?

POGGIOLI: Well, the two names I will probably face off in the early balloting are Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, an Italian conservative not linked to the Vatican administration, known as the Curia. And he's favored by many cardinals from abroad, while the Curia's favorite is Brazilian Odilo Pedro Scherer, who's had a long experience in the Vatican.

To be elected, a candidate needs two-thirds of the votes of the 115 cardinals. That's 77 votes. If that doesn't happen in the early voting, the field really opens up. The names we're hearing are Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who leads the important Vatican Department on Bishops, Hungary's Peter Erdo, who's president of the European bishops, as well as some Latin Americans, and most surprisingly, two Americans: New York's Timothy Dolan and Boston's Sean O'Malley.

What's interesting is that so many candidates are from North and Latin America. Now, if one of these wins, it would be really an historical shift from the centuries-old Eurocentric papacy. The Czech Cardinal Dominic Duka referred to this when he said: Europe doesn't play the violin anymore.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk a little bit about that, because that's one of the things that people speculate about whenever there's a new pope being selected. People wonder if there might be a non-European pope. People ask questions about reforming the church, changing church policies. That's what's being asked on the outside.

But as best as you can tell, Sylvia, on the inside, are those the same concerns that cardinals actually have?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think the absolutely dominant pre-conclave theme was governance of the Vatican administration, the Curia, and in particular, of - also the financial issues. Yesterday, Cardinal Bertone who was Benedict's right-hand man, read a report on the controversial issue about Vatican finances and the Vatican Bank. He's under attack for poor oversight of the bank, which is being investigated for lack of transparency and suspected money laundering.

The Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz Aviz, who's also come up as a potential pope, was very sharp in his criticism of Bertone, and was applauded by many cardinals. The loudest message is that the church urgently needs structural reforms, including giving bishops decision-making powers.

Many analysts say that if the papacy remains as it is, an absolute monarchy, it cannot effectively guide 1.2 billion faithful.

INSKEEP: Sylvia, thanks very much. That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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