CARDINALS from across the world prayed for spiritual guidance yesterday ahead of the closed-door conclave to choose a new pope.
They will hold a final pre-conclave meeting today to discuss the state of their Church, left reeling by the abdication last month of Pope Benedict XVI and struggling to deal with a string of sexual abuse and corruption scandals.
The 115 cardinals who will take part in the secret ballots, which start tomorrow, fanned out around Rome yesterday to hold Masses, either in the quiet of private chapels or in the grandeur of the great cathedrals and basilicas.
Each cardinal is traditionally assigned to a church and congregations swelled in parishes visited by those considered the most likely papal contenders, such as Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of São Paulo, Brazil.
“We’re all preparing for the conclave because we need to make the right decision to decide who is going to be the new pope,” Cardinal Scherer told a small Baroque church in the heart of Rome, crammed with well-wishers.
He was driven away in a minivan with darkened windows, declining to speak to the waiting hordes of reporters – a taste of the pressures to come if he should become the first non-European to be elected pope in 1,300 years.
Another non-European touted as a candidate, US Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also received star treatment as he arrived for Mass in ornate vestments.
“I say sincerely that we hope this is your last visit as cardinal,” said parish priest Father Rocco Visca, prompting loud applause.
A coach-load of faithful from northern Italy travelled down to Rome to hear Milan’s cardinal, Angelo Scola, give a sermon at the monumental Santi Apostoli Church.
“Let us pray that the Holy Spirit gives the Church a man who can lead her in the footsteps of the great pontiffs of the past 150 years,” said Cardinal Scola, seen as the leading Italian candidate.
Like fellow cardinals, he appeared eager not to draw too much attention to himself and left quietly via a back door. Some cardinals, such as Manila’s Luis Antonio Tagle, considered a long-shot because of his age, 55, kept an even lower profile, mostly staying inside the walls of seminaries or other religious institutions.
Open canvassing is frowned upon, with prelates aware of the Rome saying, “He who enters the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal”.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the princes of the church had been in constant contact in recent days and had reached initial conclusions.
“They therefore feel ready to confront the decisive step of electing a new pope,” he told Vatican Radio.
The 115 cardinal electors under the age of 80 will enter the Sistine Chapel tomorrow afternoon and hold one vote that evening. They will vote up to four times day thereafter until one of their number receives a two-thirds majority, or 77 votes.
If a pope is not elected in two or three days, it means cardinals are probably severely divided and might have to turn to a dark horse to find consensus.
No conclave has lasted than more than five days in the past century. Benedict was elected within barely 24 hours in 2005 after just four rounds of voting. But this time, no clear favourites have emerged to take the helm of the troubled Church.