12 Mar 2013

And they're off! The race to be Pope begins

All 115 runners and riders lined up in the paddock of the Basilica to celebrate Mass, all dressed in splendid red and white, writes Jonathan Rugman in Rome.

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto carried his own luggage to the conclave and hailed a taxi to get there.

“Palazzo Santa Marta!” he told the driver with excitement this morning, before heading off to the Vatican hotel where 115 Cardinals are staying when they are not voting – at all times incommunicado with the outside world.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa from Venezuela and Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez from Colombia were rather more Latinate in their approach,  helped inside an austere black sedan by a chauffeur and attendant priests.

“Let’s hope we can have a great Pope very soon,”  Cardinal Urosa told me before waving his magnificent golden ring through the car window and ploughing through Rome traffic, on the way to the biggest event of any Cardinal’s career – choosing the successor to St Peter from within his own ranks.

“It is an awesome experience,” said Cardinal Collins, as we met on the rain sodden pavement of the Papal guest house where this trio of Princes had been living till today. “This isn’t politics….this is the choosing of the vicar of Christ on earth.”

A conclave is a beauty pageant between over-55s in cassocks,  a power struggle which is in theory divinely inspired, which is why Cardinal Collins can say with a straight face that it isn’t politics at all.

The Canadian refused to tell me whom he’d be voting for. The Cardinal from Colombia was no more revealing either. “Anything is possible,” he said when I put it to him that Cardinal Odilo Scherer, from across the border in Brazil, might be his favourite.

Anything is indeed possible, though Marco Politi, a renowned Vatican expert, reckons Cardinal Angelo Scola from Milan is the front runner for the first round, on about 40 votes, with Scherer from Sao Paulo trailing him on 29.

The first Cardinal to achieve a magic two thirds majority – 77 votes – becomes chief shepherd of a global flock of 1.2 billion souls.

“The first ballot will be a referendum on Scola,” Politi says, quoting his extensive Vatican contacts.

“A strong group of Cardinals want to internationalise the papacy and take it to the Americas. On the other hand, if you want to bring order to the Vatican, it would be better to choose an Italian who knows the business.”

An Italian might indeed get to grips with the murky world of the Curia or Vatican government, even if there would be a feeling of “been there, done that” should a son of Italy yet again become the Bishop of Rome.

This morning we saw it thunder, hail and rain over St Peter’s Square as all 115 runners and riders in this race lined up in the paddock of the Basilica to celebrate Mass, all dressed in splendid red and white.

The stormy weather took me back to the opening credits of the South Bank Show, when Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is lit up with bolts of lightning.  A scurrilous thought crept into my head that maybe the whole conclave would be electrocuted, should this happen for real during the vote.

But a power failure is not what is expected today.  This is a church mired in scandal and poor government which needs to find a consensus candidate as quickly as possible,  in a show of strength and unity by St Peter’s successors.

Follow @jrug on Twitter.