VATICAN CITY — Three Americans are among the top 10 cardinals who have a prayer of becoming the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s a long shot.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan, at 9-4 and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, of San Paolo, Brazil, at 4-1 are the front-runners, oddsmakers say, as 115 cardinals enter the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel early Tuesday to begin the election process.
Vatican watchers caution against trying to handicap the papal conclave of cardinals, which remains nearly as mysterious now as it was when the process was established in the Middle Ages.
“Anyone thinking that this cardinal or that one is overwhelmingly likely to win should remember that three of the last five popes were complete and utter surprises,” said the Rev. Alistair Sear, a church historian.
Angelo Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958. Albino Luciani was elected in 1978 and reigned as Pope John Paul I. Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978, when John Paul I died 33 days after he was enthroned.
“Even in cases where there was a strong favorite, it still took three ballots to reach the required majority [of 77],” Father Sear said. “A lot can happen in three ballots.”
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The online betting site paddypower.com has dubbed Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, as the top U.S. contender at seventh place with 14-1 odds. Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, archbishop of New York, was in 10th place, with 20-1 odds, and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and now chief magistrate of the church’s highest judicial body, was ninth, at 16-1.
Oddsmakers also list Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Italy among the favorites.
The conclave to select a successor to Benedict XVI will get under way in a process that has changed only in minor ways since a series of reforms to ensure a secret election were instituted by Pope Gregory X in 1274.
The cardinals who will choose the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will be cut off from newspapers, radio and television, and barred from talking with anyone with access to the world’s news — all in an effort to prevent political meddling.
The first vote will take place Tuesday evening. If no one wins the necessary 77 votes to become the 267th occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, the cardinals will hold up to four more rounds of voting Wednesday and every subsequent day until a successor is chosen and a new pontiff is presented from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The cardinals will vote by paper ballots, pause for prayer and reflection between each vote, and sleep in communal housing and eat together as a group. Support staff — cooks, cleaners, clerical personnel and translators — have been sworn to secrecy.
The man they elect will face a number of challenges — spiritual, bureaucratic and moral — but few are as likely to define his image as how he handles a series of church scandals.
One of Benedict’s strongest points compared with his predecessor was that, even before his papacy, he was known to have a much stronger grasp of the depth and breadth of the sex-abuse situation in the church than John Paul II did.
In addition to the ongoing disposition of sex-abuse cases, the latest round of scandals includes the Vatican Bank’s role in a larger money-laundering ring and a secret report that charges that a network of homosexual clergy is working in the Vatican and blackmailing Curial officials.
“Every era has its own urgencies, but it’s hard to imagine the stakes for picking the right man for the job being much higher than they are for this conclave,” Father Sear said.
The conclave will be the first in 719 years when a living pope will be replaced. In 1294, Pope Celestine V resigned and was replaced by Boniface VIII, who imprisoned Celestine in a papal dispute. Celestine died 10 months later.
Benedict is the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to resign, but Gregory XII, who abdicated in 1415, died before his successor, Martin V, was elected.
Since his Feb. 28 resignation for health reasons, Benedict has stayed out of public sight, although Italian paparazzi last week managed to get a few photographs of him strolling the grounds of the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.