VATICAN CITY — On the eve of their conclave to select a new pope, cardinals held their final debate Monday over whether the Catholic Church needs a manager to clean up the Vatican or a pastor to inspire the faithful at a time of crisis.
The countdown underway, speculation has gone into overdrive about who's ahead in the papal campaign.
Will cardinals choose Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, an Italian with serious intellectual and managerial chops who hasn't been tainted by the scandals of the Vatican bureaucracy?
Or has Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Capuchin monk from Boston who has charmed the Italian media worked the same magic on fellow cardinals?
Most cardinals already knew Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet since he heads a powerful Vatican office. But maybe over the past week they've gotten a chance to hear him sing -- he has a fabulous voice and is known for belting out French folk songs.
Whoever it is, there were strong indications that plenty of questions remained about the state of the church and the best man to lead it heading into Tuesday's conclave: Not all the cardinals who wanted to speak were able to Monday, and the cardinals were forced to take a vote about continuing the discussion into the afternoon.
In the end, a majority of cardinals chose to cut short the formal discussion, and the cardinals who did speak shortened their comments, according to the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
"This is a great historical moment but we have got to do it properly, and I think that's why there isn't a real rush to get into things," Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier from South Africa said as he left the session.
Cardinal Javier Luis Errázuriz of Chile was more blunt, saying that while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had tremendous support going into the 2005 conclave that elected him Benedict XVI after just four ballots, the same can't be said for any of the candidates in this election.
"This time around, there are many different candidates, so it's normal that it's going to take longer than the last time," he told The Associated Press.
One of the main presentations Monday came from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican No. 2 who heads the commission of cardinals overseeing the scandal-marred Vatican bank. He outlined the bank's activities and the Holy See's efforts to clean up its reputation in international financial circles, Lombardi said.
The Holy See's finances, and particularly the work of the Vatican bank have been under the spotlight during these pre-conclave meetings as cardinals seek to investigate allegations of corruption in the Vatican administration and get to the bottom of the bank's long history of scandal and secrecy.
There's no clear front-runner for a job most cardinals say they would never want, but a handful of names are circulating as top candidates to lead the 1.2 billion-strong church at a critical time in its history.
Scola is affable and Italian, but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy. That makes him attractive perhaps to those seeking reform of the nerve center of the Catholic Church, which was exposed as corrupt and full of petty turf battles by the leaks of papal documents last year.
Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer seems to be favored by some Latin Americans and the Vatican Curia, or bureaucracy. Scherer has a solid handle on the Vatican's finances, sitting on the governing commission of the Vatican bank, the Institute for Religious Works, as well as the Holy See's main budget committee.
As a non-Italian, the archbishop of Sao Paolo would be expected to name an Italian insider as secretary of state — the Vatican No. 2 who runs day-to-day affairs at the Holy See — another plus for Vatican-based cardinals who would want one of their own running the shop.
The pastoral camp seems to be focusing on two Americans, Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and O'Malley. Neither has Vatican experience, though Dolan served in the 1990s as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. seminary up the hill from the Vatican. He has admitted his Italian isn't strong — perhaps a handicap for a job in which the lingua franca of day-to-day administration is Italian and the pope's other role as bishop of Rome.
If the leading names fail to reach the 77 votes required for victory in the first few rounds of balloting, any number of surprise names could come to the fore as alternatives.
Those include Cardinal Luis Tagle, archbishop of Manila. He is young — at age 55 the second-youngest cardinal voting — and was only named a cardinal last November. While his management skills haven't been tested in Rome, Tagle — with a Chinese-born mother -- is seen as the face of the church in Asia, where Catholicism is growing.
Whoever it is, the new pope will face a church in crisis: Benedict XVI spent his eight-year pontificate trying to revive Catholicism from the secular trends which have made it almost irrelevant in places like Europe, once a stronghold of Christianity. Clerical sex abuse scandals have soured many faithful on their church, and competition from rival evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa has drawn souls away.
Tuesday begins with the cardinals checking into the Vatican's Domus Sanctae Martae, a modern, industrial-feel hotel on the edge of the Vatican gardens. While the rooms are impersonal, they're a step up from the cramped conditions cardinals faced before the hotel was first put to use in 2005; in conclaves past, lines in the Apostolic Palace used to form for using bathrooms.
Tuesday morning, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, leads the celebration of the "Pro eligendo Pontificie" Mass — the Mass for the election of a pope — inside St. Peter's Basilica, joined by the 115 cardinals who will vote.
They break for lunch at the hotel, and return for the 4:30 p.m. procession into the Sistine Chapel, chanting the Litany of Saints, the hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of the saints to help guide the voting. They then take their oath of secrecy and listen to a meditation by elderly Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech.
While the cardinals are widely expected to cast the first ballot Tuesday afternoon, technically they don't have to. In conclaves past, the cardinals have always voted on the first day.
The first puffs of smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney should emerge sometime around 8 p.m. Black smoke from the burned ballot papers means no pope. White smoke means the 266th pope has been chosen.