Betting on the next Pope

Vatican watchers will often remind journalists of the saying: “He who goes into conclave a Pope, comes out a cardinal”.

Apparently it takes the prospect of a conclave to fill the churches in Rome these days. Even in Italy, the overwhelmingly Catholic nation that surrounds the Vatican state, congregation numbers have been dwindling. But not so this Sunday, only two days before the start of the secretive election process which will choose the next Pope.

The fact that many of the 115 cardinals who will take part in the conclave were celebrating mass at parishes around Rome had a lot to do with it. If media turnout is anything to go by, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo in Brazil is in with a good chance, as journalists who turned out for his mass seemed to outnumber the actual congregation.

But being seen as a probable future Pope is not necessarily a good thing. Vatican watchers will often remind journalists of the saying: “He who goes into the conclave a Pope, comes out a cardinal”.

Smoke signals

The truth is that the outcome of the conclave is impossible to predict. Yes, we know the issues: The administrative body of the Church, the Curia, is too insular and needs a good shake-up. The paedophile priests scandal has been disastrous for the Church’s image and must be dealt with. Congregations in Europe are getting smaller, finances need to be more transparent and more men need to join the priesthood to cater for the growing catholic communities in the developing world.

These are some of the things the new Pope will have to deal with. But once the doors of the Sistine Chapel close on Tuesday afternoon, there will be no way of telling the way things are going inside. The conclave is a modern day election with rules straight out of the Middle Ages.

In this age of 24 hour news, we’re used to relatively accurate polls in the run up to any election, that can assess which way the voters are swinging. As soon as the polls close, we have exit polls that keep the news cycle going until official results are announced. But none of this will apply to the conclave, the world’s most secretive election.

The only thing we’ll know for sure is the turnout 115 cardinals under the age of 80. Any other updates will come from the smoke produced by the burning of the ballots inside the Sistine Chapel. Black smoke for an inconclusive vote, white smoke if a cardinal has obtained the two thirds majority needed to be elevated to the Papacy.

But pity the journalists who have to make the call on such a big announcement based on some smoke. Because Rome these days is uncharacteristically rainy and foggy. And I remember the 2005 conclave, huddled together with other journalists watching the chimney, and wondering: “Is that black smoke or white smoke? Because it all looks grey to me…”

Follow Al Jazeera’s Barbara Serra on Twitter: @BarbaraGSerra

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