The election of a new pope is shrouded in the closest secrecy, and there is no way to know who is really in the running.
But there are key cardinals seen as “papabili” - contenders to the throne. History has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation:
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been called a happy warrior for evangelisation and the bear-hug bishop. Dolan, 63, is an upbeat, affable defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and a well-known religious figure in the United States.
He holds a job Pope John Paul II once called “archbishop of the capital of the world.” His colleagues broke with protocol in 2010 and made him president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, instead of elevating the sitting vice president as expected. And during the 2012 presidential election, Republicans and Democrats competed over which national political convention the cardinal would bless. He did both.
But scholars question whether his charisma and experience are enough for a real shot at succeeding Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The thinking ahead of the conclave is Dolan’s chances are slim.
Dolan spent seven years in Rome as rector of the North American College, considered the West Point for U.S. priests, where he had studied for his own ordination years earlier. However, he never worked in a Vatican office or congregation - experience that would have helped him develop ties with cardinals from other countries and raise his profile in a conclave.
Benedict made Dolan a cardinal just a year ago. No American has ever served as pontiff. Some cardinals express concerns a superpower pope and the potential for his actions to be viewed as serving the US instead of the church.
However, Dolan speaks only halting Italian and a little Spanish, and no French or Latin, a huge drawback for a potential leader of a 1.2 billion-member global church. The cardinal’s informality and folksy vocabulary, which help make him so approachable in the United States, could actually undermine his chances in Rome.
On the final day of Benedict’s pontificate, Dolan stood with seminarians on the roof of the North American College and waved as a helicopter flew overhead, carrying the departing pope to what will be his temporary retirement home, the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo. In his trademark way, he put any talk of his elevation aside, by recalling a conversation with his mother.
She told him, “You better be back in time for St. Patrick’s Day because I want to walk down Fifth Avenue with you in the parade.”
To many, Honduran Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga embodies the activist wing of the Roman Catholic Church as an outspoken campaigner of human rights, a watchdog on climate change and advocate of international debt relief for poor nations.
Others, however, see him as a reactionary in the other direction: Described as sympathetic to a coup in his homeland and stirring accusations of anti-Semitism for remarks that some believe suggested Jewish interests encouraged extra media attention on church sex abuse scandals.
Both images will follow him into the Sistine Chapel conclave along with other cardinals named as possible successors.
“Of course, the day will come for a pope from the south, as it came for one from the east,” Maradiaga said in a 2008 interview in reference to Polish-born Pope John Paul II. “At no time have I thought of myself as papabile,” the Italian word for papal candidates.
Perhaps more than the other Latin American papal contenders, however, the 70-year-old Maradiaga carries a complicated and, at times, contradictory resume. That could worry some papal electors looking to tone down controversies after wrenching abuse cases around the world and turmoil inside the Vatican walls over embarrassing leaked documents on finances and internal power plays.
Maradiaga, who was named as cardinal in 2001, was mentioned among the possible papal successors in 2005 following the death of John Paul II. A lot has happened since to both raise his profile and possibly dim his papal chances.
In 2007, Maradiaga was elected president of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church’s largest aid network, enhancing his credentials as a powerful Catholic voice for aid and economic justice, including years as the Vatican’s spokesman with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the issue of developing world debt.
He also has linked climate change to “irresponsible attitudes” on environmental protection and called on governments to view employment as a “human right.” He once said that “neoliberal capitalism carries injustice and inequality in its genetic code.”
But others see his reputation as indelibly stained by his apparent support for a coup that ousted president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 when he ignored court orders to drop plans for a referendum on constitutional changes.
For more than a decade, meanwhile, Maradiaga has faced questions over comments made to the Italy-based Catholic publication “30 Giorni” in which he apparently claimed Jewish interests in the media pushed for expansive coverage of the church’s sex scandals as a way to divert attention from Israel’s disputes with Palestinians.
Maradiaga quickly tried to clarify his remarks, saying they he never intended to suggest Jewish-led conspiracies played a role in media coverage of Vatican affairs.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn is a soft-spoken conservative who is ready to listen to those espousing reform. That profile that could appeal to fellow cardinals looking to elect a pontiff with widest-possible appeal.
His nationality may be his biggest disadvantage: Electors may be reluctant to choose another German speaker as a successor to Benedict XVI.
A man of low tolerance for the child abuse scandals roiling the church, Schoenborn himself was elevated to the its upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy after his predecessor resigned 18 years ago over accusations that he was a paedophile.
Multilingual and respected by Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Benedict XVI’s friend and former pupil was one of the cardinal electors in the 2005 papal conclave that chose the German as head of the Catholic church. A scholar who is at home in the pulpit, Schoenborn also is well connected in the Vatican - and appears willing to make it his home, if reluctantly.
Asked if he would like to succeed Benedict on news of the pontiff’s plan to step down, he said: “my heart is in Vienna, my heart is in Austria - but naturally with the whole Church as well.”
Such reticence is not unusual for a prince of the church known for a quiet management style focused on steering the Austrian church around controversy.
That has not always been possible. The austere Schoenborn owed his own elevation to the scandal involving his predecessor, Hans Groer, who was accused of abusing young boys.
“It’s sad that it took so long to act,” he said of Rome’s reluctance to investigate the wrongdoing, saying later of the scandal: “The church is greater than its human weaknesses.”
He went further than that as cases of sexual abuse continued rocking the church, calling for a re-examination of priestly celibacy in 2010 - only to roll back in typical style shortly after, by having his spokesman issue a denial that he was questioning the rule on priests not marrying.
While accepting the possibility of evolution, Schoenborn criticised certain “neo-Darwinian” theories as incompatible with Catholic teaching.
Born Jan. 22, 1945, into an aristocratic Bohemian family, Schoenborn’s destiny appeared to have been influenced by his heritage - 19 of his ancestors were priests, bishops or archbishops.
His reputation as a scholar - and bridge-builder to Orthodox Christians - began with a dissertation on icons even before he became a theology professor. Fluent in French and Italian, proficient in English and Spanish, he is well-connected in the Vatican, as reflected by his role as a cardinal elector for Benedict.
He quotes Amy Winehouse and, unlike Benedict XVI, actually taps out his tweets himself. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi is an erudite scholar with a modern touch - and that is seen by some as just the combination the Catholic Church needs to revive a church beset by scandal and a shrinking flock.
Benedict’s culture minister at the Vatican, Ravasi consistently makes the short lists of closely watched candidates to be the next pope. He is one of the favourites among Catholics who long to see a return to the tradition of Italian popes. The polyglot biblical scholar peppers speeches with references ranging from Aristotle to late British diva Winehouse.
At Benedict’s request, Ravasi led the pontiff and other Vatican prelates in daily Lenten meditation and prayer services during what turned out to be the pontiff’s last full week in the papacy. Ravasi’s words were podcast for all to hear on Vatican Radio, and the prelate tweeted in English and Italian to give the flavour of his sermons to those outside the Holy See’s inner circle. Ravasi’s foreign language prowess is reminiscent of that of the late globetrotting John Paul II: He tweets in English, chats in Italian and has impressed his audiences by switching to Hebrew and Arabic in some of his speeches. As a child, he taught himself ancient Greek.
Benedict, who relaxes by playing Mozart on the piano, yearned to have the Church relive at least some of the role it had held for centuries as patron of the arts, as attested by the frescoed Vatican ceilings and walls by Michelangelo, Raphael and other great artists.
It has been Ravasi’s role to spearhead that effort.
But Ravasi’s Vatican resume is perhaps most notable for his efforts for dialogue with atheists. He spearheaded the Vatican’s “Courtyard of the Gentiles” initiatives - a series of meetings, conferences and other intellectually flavoured initiatives that brought together believers and non-believers together in the common bond of culture.
The 70-year-old Ravasi said earlier this year that he took to listening to Amy Winehouse’s “lacerating” lyrics to help him understand the new language and culture of young people and how to communicate with them.
Ravasi is a frequent front-page commentator on Italian dailies, including a newspaper of the country’s industrialist lobbies, and made frequent appearances on an Italian private TV network that is part of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire.
But Ravasi’s resume is short on pastoral experience. And his confession to a crash course in pop music might not be enough to convince his fellow cardinals he has the star power for the top job in the Catholic church.
Both are the sons of Italian immigrants. Both are doctrinal conservatives. And both are known for their warm personalities.
But the two Argentine cardinals widely given an outside chance to become pope have had very different careers.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would be the first Jesuit pope if chosen, has spent nearly his entire career at home in Argentina, overseeing churches. Leonardo Sandri, who left for Rome 42 years ago, is a Vatican insider who has run the day-to-day operations of the global church’s vast bureaucracy and roamed the world as a papal diplomat.
The election of either of them as pope might help to reconcile two conflicting trends in the papal election: the push to return to the tradition of Italian popes, and the longing for a pontiff from the developing world.
Bergoglio, 76, reportedly got the second-most votes after Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 papal election, and he has long specialized in the kind of pastoral work that some say is an essential skill for the next pope.
Bergoglio is known for modernising an Argentine church that had been among the most conservative in Latin America, Sandri, 69, left for Rome at 27 and never came back to stay in Argentina. Initially trained as a canon lawyer, he reached the No. 3 spot in the church’s hierarchy under Pope John Paul II, the zenith of a long career in the Vatican’s diplomatic service ranging from Africa to Mexico to Washington.
As substitute secretary of state for seven years, he essentially served as the pope’s chief of staff, running the central office at the heart of the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia.
The jovial diplomat has been knighted in a dozen countries, and the church he is attached to as cardinal is Rome’s gorgeous, baroque San Carlo ai Catinari. In contrast, Bergoglio stands out for his austerity. As Argentina’s top church official, he’s never lived in the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires, preferring a simple bed in a downtown room heated by a small stove on frigid weekends. For years, he used public transport around the city, and cooked his own meals.
Sandri remains a consummate Vatican insider. Benedict promoted him to cardinal and named him to the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal, which provides the second-to-last word on church law, after the pope. Sandri also is one of very few cardinals in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rule-making bastion Ratzinger led for many years before becoming pope.
Both men are seen as moderates with open minds, even as their doctrinal and spiritual positions remain well in line with the legacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both conservative popes.