VATICAN CITY — It’s a political campaign like no other, with no declared candidates or front-runners and a strict taboo against openly gunning for the job. But the maneuvering is already under way, with one African contender declaring Tuesday it was time for a pope from the developing world — and he was free if God wanted him.
A day after Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world and announced he would retire on Feb. 28, Berlin’s archbishop urged mercy for the victor, given the terrible weight of the office. Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera asked for prayers so that 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.
There 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.
If asked, most cardinals routinely invoke the refrain: “He who goes into a conclave a pope comes out a cardinal."
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."
In an interview with The Associated Press inside his Vatican offices, Turkson said the “young churches" of Africa and Asia have now become solid enough that they have produced “mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership also of this world institution."
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.
Berlin’s archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, said he doesn’t care “whether he is African or Asian or Latin American or European."
More importantly, Woelki said, “We should treat mercifully the person who has to take over such an office, in order not to expect of him ... possibly 20, 25 or even more years."
“Such an office wears people out," he said, praising Benedict for setting the modern precedent of retiring as pope.
That assessment was certainly on the mind of Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile, who took himself out of the running entirely. He told Chile’s Radio Cooperativa that at age 79, he’s not the papal contender he was back in 2005.
“Back then, I was president of the Latin American Conference of Bishops. It was normal that among the Latin American names they included the president of that institution," he said. “But I’m now a cardinal emeritus, and I have a different path ahead of me."
Rivera, the Mexican cardinal, struck a similar 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.