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People often imagine a conclave as a political convention in red robes, where cardinals may pray to the Holy Spirit but do their real business in back-room maneuvers.

Judging from my conversations with cardinals over the last two weeks, the “campaigning” aspect of a conclave is exaggerated in popular imagination. But that doesn’t mean the cardinals don’t talk, lobby and carefully calculate the chances of their favorite candidate.

From the moment it begins this evening, you could probably divide the conclave into “praying” and “politicking” moments.

The praying takes place in the Sistine Chapel, where the voting procedure is so formal and so solemn that the cardinals don’t even talk to each other. There’s a reason the cardinals will file into the chapel in choir dress – they are, in a sense, participating in a liturgy.

For that reason, there’s no chit-chat among the cardinal electors, and certainly no chance to ruminate on vote tallies.

But that changes as soon as the cardinals exit the Sistine and get on the mini-buses to the Domus Sanctae Marthae, their residence inside Vatican City. They begin to talk, to reflect on the balloting and, yes, even to promote their candidates to brother cardinals.

There’s a reason the conclave generally begins with a single ballot in an evening session. The first ballot, which may find 15 or more cardinals receiving votes, gives the lay of the land, and the cardinals have some numbers to work with as they head off to dinner.

These meals at the Domus are extremely important. There’s no assigned seating, and for many cardinals it’s the first real chance they have to converse at length with prelates from other countries and regions. And once the dining room clears out, smaller and more private conversations continue into the night.

The conclave rules are pretty adamant about what is and is not allowed in these conversations. What’s forbidden (under penalty of excommunication) is making any pact or promise that would oblige a cardinal to vote for a particular candidate – or deny his vote to a candidate. Also banned are any deals that would promise certain appointments or courses of action if a particular cardinal is elected pope.

For example, it would break the rules to ask Cardinal X to support your candidate, and promise in return that as pope, he would make Cardinal X his secretary of state.

One Italian papabile, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, was reported to have addressed that issue head-on when he told fellow cardinals that, whether or not he’s considered a papal contender, he didn’t want to hear anyone approach him with a deal or a bargain.

What the rules do allow, however, is “the exchange of views concerning the election.” That’s broad enough to permit the kind of promotion, plugs and endorsements that circulate quietly in the Domus. And the cardinals feel a duty to do this kind of talking, because without it the conclave could easily stall.

From an initial group of 15 or more vote-getters, the second and third ballots the next morning generally thin the field down to seven or eight candidates. Lunch on Day 2 of a conclave is typically a crucial moment, when momentum is assessed carefully and when votes are shifted to front-runners.

If a conclave goes into Day 3 and beyond, it’s a sign that original favorites may lack the support needed for reaching the necessary two-thirds majority. At that point, the cardinals may turn to other candidates – and keep praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

As we approach the start of Conclave 2013, it’s instructive to take a look back on Conclave 2005 – especially given the possibility that a protagonist of that election could return as a papabile this time around.

The vote tallies in the 2005 conclave were leaked five months later in an anonymous cardinal’s diary, which formed the basis of an article published by the Italian journal Limes. The author, Lucio Brunelli, is a respected journalist who has covered the Vatican for decades, so his account – which has since been supported by others – deserves attention.

According to the diary, Cardinal Ratzinger led off the first ballot by obtaining 47 votes. Behind him were Argentine Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio with 10 votes, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan with 9 votes and a handful of other candidates with lower numbers.

Cardinal Bergoglio’s showing on the first ballot was a real surprise, and the next day his tally climbed to 35, compared to 65 for Cardinal Ratzinger. The third vote brought Cardinal Ratzinger to 72 (five shy of the needed two-thirds majority) and Cardinal Bergoglio to 40.

The cardinals took their lunch break at this crucial point. It was clear that the next vote would either see the election of Cardinal Ratzinger or, if his support had peaked, mark a move toward another candidate – perhaps Cardinal Bergoglio.

According to anonymous sources later cited by Italian journalists, Cardinal Bergoglio let it be known – more in gestures than in words – that he was not ready to accept the office of the papacy. They say this is one reason some of his early supporters voted for Cardinal Ratzinger on the fourth and final ballot that elected him Pope Benedict XVI.

Others are adamant that Bergoglio never “refused” the possibility of election, and say he was simply humbled by the idea of becoming pope.

Why is this important today?

Because in the last few days, some serious voices have mentioned Cardinal Bergoglio as a contender in the coming conclave. Not simply because he came in second the last time around, but because he impressed cardinals when he took the floor in the pre-conclave meetings that began last week.

His words left the impression that even at age 76, Bergoglio had the energy and the inclination to do some house-cleaning in the Roman Curia.

Bergoglio, the son of an Italian railway worker, joined the Jesuit order at the age of 21. As a pastor in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, he has built a reputation as a conservative on doctrinal issues and a progressive on social justice. He once said the church has to preach Gospel simplicity and Gospel certainty, and his own lifestyle seems to witness that message (he lives in a simple apartment and takes public transportation, for example.)

This conclave has multiple contenders but no real front-runner, and it’s quite possible that if early voting produces a stall, the College of Cardinals could once again turn to Cardinal Bergoglio as someone who would bring key changes but without an extra-long reign.

If it were up to Maria Cherubino, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston would emerge from the coming conclave as the next pope.

“He’s a spiritual figure, he’s fairly young and energetic, and he seems sure of himself. All that is important, because I think the church needs a great guide in this particular moment,” she said after attending Mass celebrated by Cardinal O’Malley in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

A few pews away, Elisabetta Porco gave a similar endorsement.

“There was just something about him I immediately liked when I saw him. Maybe being a friar is part of it, but I have the feeling he would be a different kind of pope,” she said.

Her assessment appeared to be shared by the crowd of parishioners that packed into the small church, where O’Malley is the “titular” cardinal – every cardinal is assigned a titular church in Rome, and the Boston cardinal was lucky enough to get a historic one in the city center.

Father Rocco Visca welcomed Cardinal O’Malley with a talk that stopped just short of being a campaign speech. He recalled telling a reporter about O’Malley’s qualities as a “lovable, humble but decisive” man, whose only “defect” was that he was a Capuchin friar – a remark made in jest, but reflecting the fact that it’s been ages since a member of a Franciscan order was elected pope.

Father Visca said he knows that Cardinal O’Malley has called the prospect of his election to the throne of Peter “surreal” and even frightening, but he urged the cardinal to let himself be guided by “the design of the Holy Spirit.”

“We hope this will be your last visit to our church as a titular cardinal. And if our prayers are answered, we hope your first visit as pontiff will be to our – and your – church, Santa Maria della Vittoria,” he added, to the delight of everyone in attendance.

Well, almost everyone.

A contrary voice from Boston

Among those attending the Mass was Peter Borré, who heads the Council of Parishes in Boston, a group that has fought against O’Malley’s plans for parish closings. He said Boston has gone from 400 parishes 10 years ago to 280 parishes today, and if Cardinal O’Malley has his way, that will shrink to about 130 parish clusters in coming years.

The way Borré sees it, “That’s purification with a vengeance.”

“I think the fundamental policy choice is, do we continue one-third of a century of downsizing … with the idea of, let’s get to a base? Or do we restore the catholic small-c and reach out? O’Malley, for all his pastoral ways, has been on the leading edge of downsizing. That doesn’t work for me,” he said.

Another reason Borré has trouble envisioning O’Malley as pope is his management style, at a time when many cardinals are calling for deep reform of the Roman Curia.

“It’s clear from these discussions in Rome that somebody has got to get a grip on the Curia. This guy, in Boston for almost 10 years, has given up. He signs what he’s told to sign. And then this American notion, well, that it’ll be a split ticket so we’ll have Godzilla as secretary of state – that doesn’t work in an absolute monarchy,” he said.

The prodigal son

In his homily at today’s Mass, O’Malley spoke in decent enough Italian (though he mispronounced the Italian word “conclave”), reflecting on the Gospel parable of the prodigal son, and the need for the church to reach out with mercy to people who have grown distant from the faith.

He spoke briefly about the conclave, which begins on Tuesday, asking for prayers so that the cardinals will “choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith and make more visible the love of the Good Shepherd, who seeks out the lost sheep, who heals the sick and who embraces the prodigal son.”

“One can leave the house of the father, the church, for various reasons: ignorance, a poor welcome, negative experiences, scandals and spiritual mediocrity,” he said.

O’Malley has become an unlikely favorite of Italians in the run-up to the conclave, even coming in first place in a reader poll conducted by the newspaper Corriere della Sera. In fact, as of today O’Malley was leading the next highest vote-getter in the reader poll, Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, by a 2-1 margin.

That ensured that there were almost as many journalists as worshipers in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church. At the end of the Mass, a priest told reporters not to even think about interviewing the cardinal: “We’re taking him out a secret back door known only to us.”

The priest joked that the church is probably best known on the tourist map as the setting for grisly scenes in Dan Brown’s fictional best-seller, “Angels and Demons.”

The Sunday send-off

All across Rome, other cardinals were receiving similar send-offs to the conclave as they celebrated liturgies in their titular churches.

A few blocks away, Cardinal Scola told his faithful: “The church’s mission is always to announce the mercy of God, even to the sophisticated and disoriented people of the 21st century, even in these afflicted times.”

Meanwhile, just down the street, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer said the conclave marked a “beautiful’ moment for the church, and an opportunity to show the world that the faith was built on “joy and hope.”

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