It will be a pope vote like no other in history, and the politicking isn't going to wait until the Roman Catholic Church's 117 cardinal electors get frisked for cellphones and Palm Pilots and locked up in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel in a fortnight's time.
As Pope John Paul lay in state at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace last night, the princes of the church from 53 countries began to gather in Rome. They may not all know each other well through face-to-face encounters, but they are the most media-savvy group of cardinals ever assembled to elect a pope.
They will have been bombarded by the same books, magazine articles and television reports as the public about the church's global problems and the sort of man it needs sitting on St. Peter's Throne next. They will be familiar with the biographies and track records of the leading papabile those considered pope material (by the news media, at least).
They'll have the better part of two weeks to sound each other out, immerse themselves in what the pundits are saying and even chat up the papabile before they enter the chapel conclave to begin voting: two ballots in the morning, two ballots in the afternoon until a candidate wins two-thirds-majority support.
Only three of 117 cardinals those who are under the age of 80 have participated in a conclave.
There is no obvious front-runner.
For the first time in more than 800 years, the cardinals will have comfortable living quarters with en suite bathrooms in the newly built Domus Sanctae Marthae, rather than iron cots, chamber pots and the thin dividers that would separate a snoring eminence from a flatulent one in the Apostolic Palace.
Thus, although no conclave since 1831 has lasted more than four days, this one could be different. The cardinals won't feel pressed to have it over and done with. The divisions that John Paul suppressed through his 26-year iron rule will quickly bubble to the surface.
"They'll want to get it right," says Michael Higgins, one of the world's leading scholars of the contemporary Catholic church and the president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont. "A lot of them won't see another conclave again."
Thomas Reese, editor of the authoritative U.S. Jesuit magazine America, says changes to the voting rules instituted by John Paul in 1996 could well result in both a long conclave and the election of a more radical candidate.
The new rule is that if no one receives a two-thirds majority after 28 ballots, a pope may then be elected from between the two leading contenders, with a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one a change seen as working against the tradition of cobbling together consensus around moderate, pragmatic candidates.
"Now, there is no incentive for them to compromise or move to another candidate," Rev. Reese said in a recent interview. "In fact, the incentive is reversed. This change increases the likelihood of a more radical and ideological candidate being elected."
Ironically, in the 1978 conclave that elected Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, he is rumoured to have been a pragmatic compromise candidate between two Italians, neither of whom could achieve two-thirds majority support. If so, he likely would not have been elected under the new rules.
Vatican journalist John Allen has written in his book, Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election, that one of the Italian candidates, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, effectively booted two-thirds' majority support beyond reach with a pre-conclave radio interview that attacked some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He had thought the interview would not be broadcast until after he and his colleagues were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel.
Cardinals have been the sole electors of popes since the 11th century. Prior to that, they were elected more or less democratically by the priests and laity of Rome.
The history of conclaves through the centuries is a narrative of bloodshed, corruption, secular power politics, bribery and intrigue. It's why the cardinals now agree to be searched for cellphones and modems and why they vow not to let secular authorities interfere in the election.