Weeks of feverish speculation and intrigue in Rome enter their final phase Monday when 115 cardinals begin to elect a pope in the most exclusive and secret ballot in the world.
With no obvious successor apparent, British bookmaker William Hill Sunday put Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Bavarian-born enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy under the old pope, known as God's rottweiler, in front at 7-2.
During the nine days since John Paul II's funeral, the cardinals have been meeting formally and informally to discuss the sort of candidate they would like as pontiff. On Monday, they will enter the Sistine Chapel to begin their formal deliberations.
Sunday, in an indication of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the election, a spokesman for one candidate, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, denounced claims by a lawyer in Buenos Aires that he had been involved in a plot to kidnap two Jesuit priests during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. "This is old slander. This is the week of slander," the spokesman told the Associated Press.
Preliminary indications are that the more conservative of the cardinals choosing the next spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics this week will initially at least rally behind Cardinal Ratzinger, 78, dean of the College of Cardinals, while the more progressive cardinals struggle to find a credible candidate to put up against him. But while Cardinal Ratzinger may be some bookies' favorite, he may be unable to command the two-thirds plus-one majority -- 78 votes -- needed to secure the papacy. This could leave the field open for a compromise to emerge, possibly from among the Latin American or European cardinals.
Among the front-runners are the Brazilian archbishops Claudio Hummes and Geraldo Majella Agnelo, though a new dark horse in the shape of Cardinal Javier Francisco Errazuriz of Santiago, Chile, was also being spoken about last week.
If one of the next pope's problems will be to reinvigorate European and North American Catholics' support for the faith, Cardinal Ratzinger's election would be unlikely to stir wild enthusiasm; a recent poll for Der Spiegel magazine showed that even in Germany his opponents outnumber supporters 36 percent to 29 percent. Cardinal Ratzinger has alienated some undecided cardinals by insisting on absolute secrecy in the run-up to the conclave, at a time when many were hoping for greater transparency. He has intervened on no fewer than five occasions in a largely unsuccessful effort to prevent details of deliberations reaching the outside world.
Paradoxically, the reformers have so far rallied around a cardinal they know cannot become pope: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Jesuit former archbishop of Milan, Italy, also 78, who suffers from Parkinson's disease. The reformers also hope to see the emergence of either Dionigi Tettamanzi, Martini's successor in Milan, or Jose da Cruz Policarpo, the patriarch of Lisbon, Portugal.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Ratzinger has been ordered to appear in a court in Texas over a sex abuse scandal. He was named in a suit brought on behalf of three men now in their 20s who claim they were sexually abused as children. The cardinal is accused of obstruction of justice in relation to a Vatican document that emerged in 2003 instructing Catholic bishops to deal with cases of sexual abuse "in the most secretive way."