Search for next pope begins as 183 cardinals gather in Rome

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The Independent Online

There is no obvious candidate to succeed John Paul II as pope. The search for the 265th successor to St Peter is wide open. The process will begin when the 183 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church gather in Rome for the funeral this week. While every cardinal has the right to take part in the pre-Conclave discussions on the succession, only those under the age of 80 can actually vote; these are called cardinal electors.

There are 117 cardinal electors, from 52 countries: 58 are from Europe, home to only 23 per cent of the world's Catholics; 35 from the Americas (21 from Latin America, where almost half of the Catholic population lives); 11 from Africa; 11 from Asia, and 1 each from Australia and New Zealand.

The electors are not young: 80 are over the age of 70; 101 are over 65; only six are under 60. Their average age is 71.

Over the next 15 days, these men will caucus in small or larger groups behind closed doors in Rome. They will gather in private apartments and colleges to discuss potential candidates and assess their merits.

In these meetings, they will review the situation of the church today, and challenges it is facing. Many will want to reach agreement on the outlines of the programme they would like the new pope to implement, and that is where the fault lines within the Conclave will first emerge.

Few cardinal electors know all their fellow electors; most will depend on "kingmakers", such as Cardinal Ratzinger (Germany) and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor (UK), to help them to decide for whom to cast their vote.

The date for the election has not been set but it cannot begin until 15 days after the Pope's death, and it must begin within 20 days of his demise. This means the conclave will open between 17 and 22 April.

From my conversations with a great many cardinals over recent years, it is clear that John Paul II has helped to shape their image of the role of the Pope; many confided that they would like the next pontiff to have many of his characteristics, but they are also searching for other traits.

First and foremost, everyone emphasised that they were looking for a religious leader, not a CEO. Cardinal Toppo (India) summed it up when he said they want "a man of God, a man of strong faith". Others, like Portugal's Cardinal Policarpo da Cruz, are looking for "a man of prayer, someone who can teach us how to pray as John Paul II did". An overwhelming majority said they want "a pastor", someone with first-hand experience of running a diocese. Cardinal Agnelo, president of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference, the largest bishop's conference in the world, expressed the views of many electors when he said that "the next pope must be a man who listens to the bishops, supports them and stands by them".

Several confided their desire for someone who is "not a man of the factions", to quote Canada's Cardinal Oullet. They want an "independent" man, someone not "in the embrace" of the new religious movements that emerged in the Catholic Church in the past half-century.

Many electors from Asia, Africa and Latin America insisted they want the next pope to be "sensitive to the other religions and cultures" - the words of Cardinal Hamao (Japan). They also want him to be "concerned about the poverty in the world", as the Honduran Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga put it. Furthermore, they are looking for someone who will be a moral voice and a pope who will continue the legacy of John Paul II in favour of peace and dialogue in the world.

Many hope for a man with the strength and courage to lead, "a man who is not swayed by every wind", to quote Tanzania's Cardinal Pengo. Many agree with the Nigerian Cardinal Arinze, that the next pope should "not quench the spirit" but should rather "encourage" and "put trust in people".

Nationality is no longer a problem for the electors, although most exclude a pope from the United States.

Though John Paul II has chosen all but three of the 117 electors, this does not mean they will choose someone exactly like him. History shows the cardinals in conclave often surprise the world.

The author is one of the longest-serving correspondents in the Vatican