The papabili are cardinals believed to be viable candidates. Toto-Papa, or "pope-betting," is the game played by Vatican watchers to handicap the favorites. It's a game hardly any observer wins, mostly because the information about how the vote will go is 90 percent guesswork. If by chance one gets to ask a cardinal whom he favors, he will answer (if he answers at all), "The Holy Spirit will let me know."
That doesn't stop every outsider, expert or otherwise, from having an opinion.
When I covered the last election, the Post asked me to list some papabili for a preview article; I put down three from Latin America, an African, a pair of Italians, an Austrian, and an Asian. The morning before the article went to press, I woke up with a revelation: What about Ratzinger, then 78, who had played a powerful role behind the scenes of John Paul II's papacy?
Several Vatican watchers had warned me off him -- too old and crotchety, they said. Yet, a few months earlier, I myself had described him in an article as a "strong candidate." Oh, well. I decided to erase the Asian and insert Ratzinger. The last-minute bet (courtesy of the Holy Spirit?) saved me from some embarrassment: Ratzinger became pope.
Good luck in compiling a viable toto-Papa list this time around, given the number of names bandied about. But the editors will require it, so let's give it a shot.
Geography is a good place to start. Since John Paul II's election -- the first non-Italian pope for several centuries -- geographical factors frequently dominate the papabili guessing game. This year, Latin Americans are again considered strong possibilities. The continent is home to half the world's Catholics.
In matters of policy, however, a Latin American selection might herald a shift in direction from concern with doctrine toward social issues and poverty. Among the Latin American papabili are cardinals from two megalopolises: Norberto Carrera Rivera, 62, from Mexico City, and Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, from Sao Paulo. Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 70, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is also in the running; his city and country are overrun with poverty and high crime. Another Latin American candidate, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Buenos Aires is considered more in line with the ultraconservative leanings of Pope Benedict XVI than with the cause of social justice.
Europe could produce a winner, given the number of Europeans in the conclave (61) and tradition (no pope has come from outside the continent since Gregory III, a Syrian, in 731). That revives the chances of Christoph Schönborn, 68, archbishop of Vienna, who some may see as a plus because he oversaw a cleanup of the church in Austria after pedophile scandals. He was a mentioned candidate in 2005. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran's name is also making the rounds, partly because he heads the Vatican department in charge of relations with other religions -- an important post in today's conflicted world of religious rivalries. But, at 69 years old, he suffers from early stages of Parkinson's disease, and the cardinals may not want to put someone with a known health problem in place after a pope just quit over declining health.
Italy possesses 28 voters in the conclave, and if they stick together, that's a formidable bloc. Italians produced popes for 455 years before the election of John Paul II, and they might be eager for a return to the historical norm. The name bouncing around now is Angelo Scola, 71, archbishop of Milan and a Benedict confidant. Being in charge of a big diocese gives him street cred among voters who want someone experienced in the nitty-gritty of local affairs and who also favors papal supremacy and a continuation of Benedict's conservative outlook.