VATICAN CITY—It’s an election but there are no campaign posters, no official candidates and even the people who might get voted in to the Vatican’s top job protest they absolutely do not want it.
Ask one of the scores of cardinals who have flocked to Rome to elect one of their own as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics if they think they are in the running and the response is usually a hearty laugh or a show of modesty.
“That’s an Alice in Wonderland story!” US cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston in the US state of Texas exclaimed to one journalist who asked him if he would wear a cowboy hat if he was elected pope.
Fellow US cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said he was not planning to hang up his brown Capuchin monk’s cassock any time soon.
“I have worn this uniform for 40 years and I expect I will wear it until the day I die. I don’t expect to change it,” he said, fending off another query.
Wanting to be pope may not be an ambition held in private and is certainly not one announced in public — the election is after all believed to be divinely inspired and being seen to be lobbying the Holy Spirit is a no-no.
There is also an Italian proverb against hubris that some of the cardinals might bear in mind as they approach the conclave election, with the warning that “someone who enters a conclave as a pope, comes out a cardinal”.
Candidacies are discussed with great tact but usually only in private or in the coffee-breaks during a series of pre-conclave meetings by the cardinals.
In any case, cardinals are bound by an oath of secrecy on pain of excommunication against telling anyone else about their discussions.
“This ain’t the Iowa caucuses,” said John Allen, a Vatican expert at the National Catholic Reporter, referring to the US state where presidential election campaigning in the United States kicks off with fierce debates.
“Conclaves are about changes in style, approach, personality. There are no buttons, bumper stickers or platforms,” he said. “And the appearance that someone is campaigning for this job is the kiss of death.”
“It is all done sotto voce” — in whispered tones, he added.
The mystery surrounding papal elections was parodied by a group of Italian artists who mounted a fake election campaign for Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, with official-looking posters plastered around central Rome.
Turkson is shown gazing up at the sky in his cardinal’s skullcap and the “slogan” reads “At The Conclave Vote Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson” with a cross on an episcopal symbol supposedly showing voters how to fill out their ballots.
Constant questions about possible candidacies can be irksome for cardinals who are facing one of the most important decisions of their careers.
Asked by one journalist if he could be pope, French cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, said it was “a mistake” and rushed off.
Another US cardinal, Timothy Dolan, went so far as telling one interviewer that anyone who thought he might be elected must be “smoking marijuana”.
In an interview with Il Messaggero daily, British cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the former archbishop of Westminster, was asked if he had bought his return ticket from Rome — an allusion to the possibility of being elected.
He replied: “I haven’t bought it yet… I’ll get it in the next few days!”
Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, who is prefect of the influential Congregation for Bishops and one of the names that is most highly rated by Vatican watchers, once said being pope “would be a nightmare”.
But he has been one of the very few to at least entertain the prospect in public in an interview with Radio-Canada earlier this week.
“I cannot not think about it now,” the cardinal said.
“Logically, I have to enter the conclave saying ‘what if, what if’. I admit that it makes me pause, it makes me pray, it makes me a bit scared. I am very conscious of the burden of the task,” he said.
He quickly added however: “I think there are a number of people who have more of a chance to be elected.”