VATICAN CITY — Cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to elect the next pope amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the Catholic Church has seen in decades: There's no front-runner, no indication how long voting will last and no sense that a single man has what it takes to fix the church's many problems.
On the eve of the vote, cardinals offered wildly different assessments of what they're looking for in a pope and how close they are to a decision. It was evidence that Benedict XVI's surprise resignation has continued to destabilize the church leadership and that his final appeal for unity may go unheeded, at least in the early rounds of voting.
Still, the buzz in the papal stakes swirled around Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian seen as favored by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favorite of Vatican-based insiders intent on preserving the status quo.
Cardinals held their final closed-door debate Monday over whether the church needs more of a manager to clean up the Vatican's bureaucratic mess or a pastor to inspire the 1.2 billion faithful in times of crisis. The fact that not everyone got a chance to speak was a clear indication that there's still unfinished business going into the first round of voting.
"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 Monday.
None of that has prevented a storm of chatter over who's ahead in the race.
Scola is affable and Italian, but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia. That gives him clout with those seeking to reform the nerve center of the Catholic Church that has been discredited by revelations of leaks and complaints from cardinals in the field that Rome is inefficient and unresponsive to their needs.
Scherer seems to be favored by Latin Americans and the Curia. The Brazilian 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 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, New York archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston archbishop O'Malley. Neither has Vatican experience. Dolan has admitted his Italian isn't strong — seen as a handicap for a job in which the lingua franca of day-to-day work is Italian.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is well-known and well-respected by many cardinals, stemming from his job at the important Vatican office that vets bishop appointments; less well known is that Ouellet has a lovely voice and is known to belt out French folk songs on occasion.
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 he is, the next pope will face a church in crisis: Benedict XVI spent his eight-year pontificate trying to revive Catholicism amid the secular trends that 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.
Closer to home, the next pope has a major challenge awaiting him inside the Vatican walls, after the leaks of papal documents in 2012 exposed ugly turf battles, allegations of corruption and even a plot purportedly orchestrated by Benedict's aides to out a prominent Italian Catholic editor as gay.
Cardinals on Monday heard a briefing from the Vatican No. 2 about another stain on the Vatican's reputation, the Vatican bank. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who heads the commission of cardinals overseeing the scandal-marred Institute for Religious Works, outlined the bank's activities and the Holy See's efforts to clean up its reputation in international financial circles.
Massimo Franco, noted columnist for leading daily Corriere della Sera, said the significance of the revelations about the bank and the Holy See's internal governance cannot be underestimated in this conclave, having determined both Benedict's decision to resign and the major task ahead for his successor.
Franco, whose new book "The Crisis of the Vatican Empire" describes the Vatican's utter dysfunction, said cardinals are still traumatized by Benedict's resignation, leading to the uncertainty heading into the conclave.
"It's quite unpredictable. There isn't a majority neither established nor in the making," he said.
Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile concurred, saying that while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had tremendous front-runner status going into the 2005 conclave that elected him pope after just four ballots, the same cannot be said for any of the candidates of 2013.
"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. "There are no groups, no compromises, no alliances, just each one with his conscience voting for the person he thinks is best, which is why I don't think it will be over quickly."
Dolan, a possible papal contender, seemed to think otherwise and was bounding with optimism by the end of the pre-conclave meetings and the drama about to unfold.
"I'm kind of happy they're over because we came here to elect a pope and we'll start it tomorrow with the holy sacrifice of the Mass, then into the conclave and look for the white smoke!" Dolan enthused on his radio show on SiriusXM's "The Catholic Channel."
Errazuriz said the key isn't so much where the next pope comes from, but what he would bring to the papacy.
Cardinals, he told AP, are looking for a pope "who is close to God, has love for people, the poorest, the ability to preach the Gospel to the world and understand the young and bring them closer to God. These are the categories that count."
He argued that Latin America, counting 40 percent of the world's Catholics, is underrepresented in the college of cardinals. "It doesn't have 40 percent of the cardinals," he said.
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. After another chant imploring the Holy Spirit to intervene, the cardinals 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, the likely outcome after Round 1. White smoke means the 266th pope has been chosen.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, also a leading papal contender, said he was going into the conclave still rattled by the fact that his mentor, Benedict, had resigned.
"It made me cry. He was my teacher. We worked together for over 40 years," Schoenborn said during a Mass late Sunday. Nevertheless, Schoenborn said the cardinals had banded together to face the future.
"It makes us brothers not contenders," he said. "Such a surprising act has already begun a true renewal."