pope_benedictThe eyes of the world will be focused on a 6-foot copper chimney at the Sistine Chapel starting today as the 115 College of Cardinals begin their deliberations to select the next pope.

In the familiar ritual, the cardinals will release black smoke from the chimney during the burning of the paper ballots if no candidate has gotten 77 votes. When someone reaches the magical number of 77, the chimney will release white smoke, signaling that they have chosen a new pope to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics—who have been without a leader for several weeks after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation last month.

While there was early speculation that the cardinals may be ready to pick a pope from Africa, which hasn’t happened since the early days of the church many centuries ago, the gossip mill has drifted away from Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.

Since two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics live outside of Europe and the U.S., primarily in Africa and South America, there are many Vatican watchers who had speculated that the cardinals may be ready to break with centuries of tradition and choose a nonwhite pope. When Benedict, then known by his given name of Joseph Ratzinger, was chosen in 2005 at the age of 78, there were many who predicted that the front-runner was Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. But the College of Cardinals selected Ratzinger instead. However, when Ratzinger became pope, Arinze took over from him as cardinal bishop of Velletri-Segni, a Catholic diocese close to Rome, which could bode well for him this time.

Turkson was appointed by Benedict four years ago to become president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and he was considered a favorite of Pope Benedict XVI, who will not have a role in choosing his successor.

Vatican watchers seem to be leaning toward two candidates as the current favorites: Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian seen as favored by those cardinals wanting to shake things up, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favorite of those who want to preserve the status quo.

It is ironic that the Italian is the outsider while the Brazilian is the insider. Scola is not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia. Scherer, in the other hand, who seems to be favored by Latin Americans and the Curia, is an inside money man, sitting on the governing commission of the Vatican bank, as well as the Holy See’s main budget committee.

When the cardinals held their final closed-door debate yesterday about what they were looking for in a new pope, not everyone got a chance to speak—which many saw as a sign that the selection process is going to take a while. Ratzinger was chosen after just four votes in 2005 because he was seen as such a clear favorite. There’s no candidate with his stature this time.

“This time around, there are many different candidates, so it’s normal that it’s going to take longer than the last time,” Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile told The Associated Press.

“There are no groups, no compromises, no alliances, just each one with his conscience voting for the person he thinks is best, which is why I don’t think it will be over quickly.”

When the 115 cardinals will file into the frescoed Sistine Chapel, they will be singing the Litany of Saints, a hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of saints to help them choose a pope. They will hear a meditation by an elderly Maltese cardinal, take an oath of secrecy, then start voting.

If an immediate winner hasn’t emerged, they will vote four times a day—twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon—until someone gets 77.

In addition to the Italian and the Brazilian, there are two Americans possibly in the running, New York archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston archbishop Sean O’Malley. While neither has Vatican experience, Dolan may be a long shot because his Italian, the working language of the Vatican, isn’t strong. O’Malley is very fluent in Italian and several other languages.

“I’m kind of happy they’re over because we came here to elect a pope and we’ll start it tomorrow with the holy sacrifice of the Mass, then into the conclave and look for the white smoke!” Dolan said yesterday on his radio show on SiriusXM’s “The Catholic Channel.”

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