On Tuesday 115 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will begin the voting process for the pope -- single most influential religious leader on Earth and the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics.
At 4:30 p.m. local time the cardinal-electors will process ceremoniously into the Sistine Chapel, and under the imposing presence of Michelangelo's masterful depiction of The Final Judgment, they will cast their first vote.
Who will they elect and why?
Unlike eight years ago, when cardinal-electors were looking primarily for someone to offer steady continuity to Pope John Paul II's pontificate, this time around the prevailing sentiment here in Rome affirms the need for a strong personality who will at once offer a joyful and convincing presentation of the Gospel (to Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, and more broadly to believers and non-believers) and with a will and capacity to reform the Vatican Curia (central management) into a humble, servant agent to God's people, rather than a disjointed and distant bureaucracy, laden with too much clerical careerism and scandal.
Since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 11, and still more intensely since his departure from Rome on February 28th, this Eternal City has been abuzz with speculation over who might best fit this profile.
The field is truly wide open.
I remember the days leading up to the last conclave when this was not so. Cardinal Ratzinger, as the dean of the college of cardinals, presided at the funeral mass for the late Pope John Paul II and the pre-conclave meetings.
His humble demeanor coupled with the profundity and clarity of his words, quickly moved him into front-runner status, even as he clearly had no interest in the job. Unfortunately for him, that too was an attractive quality.
When the cardinals talked among themselves, the first question was usually, "so what do you think of Ratzinger?" After just four ballots and only twenty-four hours in conclave, over two-thirds of the cardinals decided to elect him as pope.
In 2013, there is no Ratzinger.
But as wide open as the field is, it is astonishingly small.
By a process of elimination, based on assumptions that have been made by informed analysts and many cardinals over the last few weeks regarding the "necessary qualities" for the next pope, let's see how many of the 115 candidates are real contenders for the position:
-- The next pope should be relatively young (let's say under 73 years of age)...that lops off 55 candidates
-- He should not be from Germany (Benedict) or Poland (John Paul II)....now that leaves us with a total of 56.
--He should not have been named in any major international controversy....now we have 52.
--He should not be linked closely to the last two Vatican secretaries of state (Sodano and Bertone).... Now we have 45.
--He should have a working grasp of Italian as it is the common language of the Vatican... now we have 33.
--He should be fluent in English or Spanish (English is important for the global media and almost half of the world's Catholics speak Spanish).....now we have 28.
--He should have significant pastoral experience in a parish or diocese -- that eliminates someone who has only had an office job...now we have 24.
--He should have lived some period in Rome, so as to know the inner workings of the Vatican bureaucracy....now we have 17.
--He should be an excellent communicator in order to spread the Gospel message to a skeptical world.... now we have 5.
--He should radiate spiritual joy, as several cardinals in the pre-conclave meetings have insisted... Now we have 3.
--He should be a good judge of character, and appoint people to positions of leadership based on proven competence rather than on simple recommendation, friendship, or favors....now we have 2.
--He should be known as a good manager, projecting an inspirational vision, unafraid to correct and reform against strong opposition, all without neglecting painful tasks of governance....
And then, in the immortal words of Agatha Christie... there were NONE.
That sounds like bad news.
Maybe not. In the last 2,000 years of its history, the Church has never had a pope who could pass this test.
When Jesus chose Peter to be the Church's first leader, he knew he was picking a man who was deeply flawed, and who would even deny him three times when Jesus needed him most.
This is not to say the human and spiritual qualities of a pope don't matter, that God will somehow protect us from all harm. The man does matter. Our humanity matters. But Jesus chose Peter knowing too his capacity for sorrow, conversion, and fearless leadership rooted in his personal love for a friend whom he came to know as a merciful redeemer of his sins and ours.
Today millions of people of faith are praying for an inspired Vatican election. The retired bishop of Rome-- Pope Emeritus Benedict--is leading us in these prayers from his new life of prayer and solitude. It consoles me to know he is not fretting over who his successor will be. He knows we can rest in trust that even if the cardinals don't find a perfect candidate, because such humans don't exist, or if they choose one whom we wouldn't choose ourselves, in the words of Jesus himself to the apostles, "the gates of hell will not prevail".
Yes, even if the next pope is more like one of the handful of doozies of Renaissance times than like Jesus or Peter, the Church will survive. The deposit of the faith will be preserved.