The papal election begins tomorrow, but just because the vote is done in secret, that doesn't mean there isn't a campaign. With the start of the conclave ("with key") approaching, the assembled cardinals spent the weekend fanning out all over Rome, meeting parishioners and well-wishers, shaking hands, and doing media photo-ops. Technically, most were just paying a visit to their respective churches (most cardinals are assigned a titular church within Rome, that they "oversee" in a ceremonial manner), but one can't help notice the parallels to a barnstorming political candidate.
As The New York Times puts it, the "art of running for pope ... means never, ever appearing to be running." Obviously, no one rises to top of any organization without ambition, but since humility is also one of the key job qualifications for the Pontiff, it can be tricky to let the other Cardinals know you want the job without letting them know that you really, really want the job. All members of the conclave have been forbidden to talk to the media, or speak out on social media, but even so, publicly pushing for a particular candidate just isn't done.
So how do the Cardinals decide who is "papabile" and who is just fallible? Well, if you're part of the conclave, a lot of it has to do with deciding what you want the Catholic Church to accomplish and then finding your fellow cardinal who is in the best position to get those things done. Then you have to build voting blocs or alliances that can help get that candidate elected. Much like the political conventions of older days (or an episode of Survivor) there is a lot of deal-making and vote trading, but for the candidates, those duties are best left to your friends—and the Holy Spirit, of course.
Some men genuinely don't want the job of Pope and would rather rally support for their preferred choice, taking on the unseemly duties of campaigning so that the next Pope won't have to get his hands dirty. Much of the politicking has already gone on behind closed doors across the Vatican in recent days, but the negotiations will continue even once the conclave is inside the Sistine Chapel.
That's not to say that public appearances don't matter. A big part of the pope's job is speaking to the masses, and how the cardinals handled themselves over the last week demonstrates both their ability to relate to the people, and their ability to negotiate the complicated internal politics of the Church. The overwhelming majority of the cardinals are being introduced to the wider world for the first time (and some of the newer ones barely know each other) ,so making a good impression for the voters is an important step.
While many of the voting groups are starting to take shape by now—Archbishop Angelo Scola of Milan (pictured above at right) has resurfaced as a possible favorite—don't expect it to be over and done with on the first vote on Tuesday, so expect black smoke on Day One. No single candidate is likely to control the ballot on the first go-around and it will take time to work out the complicated allegiances. Only after that first vote will the cardinals be able to see where their choice really stands, if they need to abandon their preferred candidate, join forces with another voting bloc, or push harder for their current pick. If you're one of those candidates, the best thing to do is sit back, keep quiet, and pray.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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