And they’re off: Papal campaigning gets under way

VATICAN CITY (AP) — It’s a political campaign like no other, with no declared candidates or front-runners and a well-adhered to taboo against openly gunning for the job. But the maneuvering to select the next pope is already under way a day after Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world and announced he would retire on Feb. 28.

One African contender declared Tuesday it was time for a Third World pope — and said he was free if God wanted him.

Berlin’s archbishop urged mercy for the victor, given the terrible weight of the office, while Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera asked for prayers so the best man might win.

It’s all part of the ritual of picking a pope, the mysterious process that takes place behind closed doors at the Sistine Chapel, where the “princes” of the church, the 117 or so cardinals under age 80, vote in next month’s conclave.

Once sequestered, they cast secret ballots until they reach a two-thirds majority and elect a new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, sending up smoke signals from the chapel’s chimney to tell the world if they have failed (black) or succeeded (white).

In the run-up to the conclave, cardinals engage in a delicate dance, speaking in general terms about the qualities of a future pope and the particular issues facing the church. It’s rare for anyone to name names, much less tout himself as a candidate.

Such genteel public platitudes, however, belie the very real factions within the College of Cardinals that determine the outcome of the vote.

Just because the cardinals all wear the same red cassock and recite the same prayers doesn’t mean they all think alike. They have different visions of what the church needs, different views on critical issues and different allegiances: geographical, sentimental and theological.

And this time around, it seems geography is very much front and center, at least in the public debate that was in full swing Tuesday, the first day of the conclave campaign.

One of Africa’s brightest hopes to be the next pope, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, said the time was right for a pontiff from the developing world, and that he’s available for the job “if it’s the will of God.”

Catholics in the developing world don’t need a pope from their region to thrive, he said. They have done just fine, growing exponentially with European pontiffs. But Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s justice and peace office, said a pope from the global south would “go a long way to strengthen them in their resolve.”

Whether Turkson would have a shot at the papacy, though, is an open question. Last year he screened an alarmist video at a meeting of the world’s bishops, warning of the inroads Islam is making in Europe and the world.

He apologized, but the gaffe may have cost him a chance at the papacy. Even Vatican Radio called the film a “4-year-old, fear-mongering presentation of statistics” that have been widely debunked.

For his part, Venezuelan Cardinal Jorge Urosa said he hopes the next pope comes from Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.

Rivera, the Mexican cardinal, struck a humble tone, asking for prayers from all the faithful “so that the Holy Spirit helps us choose the best candidate to guide the church.”

It should be noted that merely by speaking publicly, the cardinals may have jinxed their chances — which may have been their intention given that the papacy is a job few actively seek. But in today’s media-driven world, where cardinals and even the pope tweet, staying silent isn’t an option — at least until the cardinals enter the frescoed walls of the Sistine Chapel.

After that, what goes on in the Sistine Chapel stays in the Sistine Chapel. Violation of the code of secrecy in a conclave means excommunication.

“It’s not like an American election with nominating speeches,” said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. Once the conclave has started, “all they do is vote, so all the politicking takes place over dinner and espresso and cigarettes.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, who wrote about the conclave process in his 1996 book “Inside the Vatican,” said each cardinal looks for three things in a papal candidate.

“Someone who has the same values and vision of the church that he has. ... Someone with whom he has a positive relation. They all want someone as pope who is their friend and will listen to them. ... And someone who will go over well in their own country, or at least not embarrass them.”

Given those requirements, it’s only natural that there be debate in the run-up to the conclave, and on the sidelines once it’s under way.

Bellitto said this conclave will be unique because cardinals won’t feel the need to refrain from discussing their picks in advance of the gathering. In the past, such discussions were considered unseemly with a pope nearing death, as during Pope John Paul II’s long, debilitating illness.

But with Benedict’s announced resignation, there’s little reason not to start the negotiations right away, he said.

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