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Here’s what’s happening inside the Sistine Chapel, as workmen prepare for the start of the conclave March 12.

I was among the journalists who were given a guided visit to the Sistine Chapel this morning, where workmen were busy finishing the construction on the seating platform. The stove where ballots are burned is the same two-chamber unit that was used in 2005. One chamber burns the ballots, while in the other chemical canisters are loaded to make sure the black smoke (an inconclusive election) is really black, and the white smoke (Habemus Papam) is really white.

Above the stove runs a copper smokestack to the roof of the Sistine, where it joins the exterior smokestack seen by the world.

If history is any guide, despite the high-tech stove, people outside will argue whether the smoke is white or black.

The Vatican spokesman said today that technicians would be testing the stove, but not actually emitting any smoke — that would cause too much confusion and excitement in St. Peter’s Square.

He also said that, in the event of white smoke during the conclave, the big bell of St. Peter’s Basilica would begin to toll. For details on how that worked out during the last conclave, see Chapter 1 of my book.

Covering the conclave would be a lot simpler for journalists if cardinals would just organize themselves into ecclesial “parties” and then vote the party line inside the Sistine Chapel.

Naturally, it doesn’t work that way. In the 21st century, it’s hazardous to peg any cardinal to a voting bloc and delineate conclave caucuses. There are several reasons, but the biggest is that it presumes a level of organization among cardinals that usually isn’t there.

That doesn’t stop intrepid reporters from trying, of course. For days we’ve been reading about the “Roman Party” in the conclave, which in theory includes many of the 41 Roman Curia cardinals (past or present) who will cast a vote, along with some of their 28 Italian confreres.

In fact, this may be the most cohesive group in the College of Cardinals – and recent criticism of the Roman Curia’s performance has probably led them to close ranks. These cardinals, if they’re on the same page, may well be able to deliver 40 or more votes to a candidate on a first ballot, which could generate enough momentum to carry the day.

The Roman Party is predominantly Italian, yet all indications are that these cardinals may throw support to a non-Italian who would have broader appeal – someone like Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil or Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina. Both men were born in Latin America, yet are of European descent. Both have strong ties to the Vatican: Sandri has spent his whole career in the Roman Curia, and Scherer worked there for seven years.

The expectation is that either cardinal, if elected, would bring in an Italian as secretary of state, thus maintaining the strong Italian influence in internal church affairs and in diplomatic dealings. (The name of Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, floated last week as a potential secretary of state, may have had a boomerang effect, however. Piacenza, head of the Congregation for Clergy, is considered very conservative to the point of being called a “closet Lefebvrist” by one informed Vatican observer.)

Today, the Rome newspaper La Repubblica has identified what it calls the “Reform Party” among cardinal electors – the only group, we are told, that has the votes to stop the Romans. Their top papal candidates include Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, an Italian who is viewed as an outsider by the Curia, and U.S. Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O’Malley.

The Reform Party also counts Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn among its ranks, a man who could have great influence in the voting and who could even emerge as pope.

La Repubblica reported today that Cardinal Scola already can count on 40 votes in the conclave, and that his star is rising. That was perhaps a deliberate echo of an article that appeared in a Rome newspaper a few days before the start of the 2005 conclave, giving Cardinal Ratzinger at least 40 votes.

As I say, if the lines were really so cleanly drawn, life would be much easier for the 5,000 journalists covering the papal election.

Here are some complicating factors that make the situation harder to read:

— Geographical allegiances are no longer as strong as they once were. In the age of globalization, the international connections made by cardinals are probably more important that national loyalties.

To give just one example, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington last week made the case against an American as pope – surprising those who assumed U.S. cardinals would unanimously back one of their own.

— The “parties” identified by reporters are much less homogenous than they appear. Among Roman Curia cardinals, for example, are several who would no doubt like to see major reforms at the Vatican: Cardinals Kasper, Tauran, Turkson, Braz de Aviz and Ravasi.

— It’s difficult for any group of cardinals to line up behind a single candidate. Yet that’s what has to happen in order to reach the necessary two-thirds majority needed for election – and it has to happen fairly quickly.

In the dynamics of a conclave, in fact, the ability to shift gears and shape momentum after each ballot is essential. A first ballot will give the lay of the land, but in the successive three or four ballots the cardinals have to decide when to move from a weaker candidate to a stronger one, as consensus grows.

This timing of these swings is key, and – in theory, at least – there are no party bosses giving orders. But here is where the experience of the Old Guard in the Roman Curia may well come into play.

It’s going to take at least 77 votes to elect the next pope, so any candidate is going to have to attract support from more than a single “party” of cardinals. That means someone with transversal appeal. To many observers in Rome, Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet seems to fit that description: a Roman Curia official who is seen as a potential reformer, a North American with strong ties to Latin America, and a man who does not seem to be closely aligned with any faction.

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