Vatican City - Pope Benedict may have shocked the world by announcing his resignation on Monday, but some cardinals apparently started manoeuvring for the succession as long as two years ago.
Papal elections are among the world's most mysterious, with no declared candidates and more bluffing than a high-stakes poker game. No cardinal can openly campaign for a job whose election is said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
But behind the scenes, at meetings inside the Vatican's thick walls and dinners at the finer Roman restaurants, the cardinal electors size up potential candidates among themselves and drop subtle hints to Vatican watchers in the media about who's up or down.
This round of discreet discussions, dubbed “totopapa” or “pope sweepstakes” by irreverent Romans, was only kicked into a higher gear on Monday when Benedict announced the first papal abdication for centuries. It will go into overdrive when cardinals from around the world arrive in the next few days.
But Benedict seems to have set the Roman rumour mill in motion back in 2010 when he told a German interviewer that he would consider resigning if he felt physically unable to continue.
“This confession shook up everybody who's anybody at the Vatican and led some cardinals to launch into the semi-official battle,” French journalist Caroline Pigozzi wrote in her newly published book Le Vatican indiscret (The Indiscreet Vatican).
“Paradoxically, one must not appear in the papers and certainly not be photographed,” she wrote. “A man of the Church is not a star and must always remember the saying 'whoever enters the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal'.”
John Thavis, a veteran Rome correspondent whose book The Vatican Diaries comes out on Feb. 21, said he had Benedict's comments from 2010 in mind as he rushed to finish it.
“I was afraid he would announce his resignation before we went to print,” he told Reuters. “I thought he would do it on Feb. 22, the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, which is the feast associated with the authority of the pope.”
About one-third of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote work in the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, and can easily compare notes on rising stars or unwanted candidates when they meet.
The others, archbishops overseeing major Catholic centres around the world, are now booking their flights to Rome, with many hoping to attend the pope's farewell to his cardinals on Feb 28. Once they're here, the quiet talk starts in earnest.
Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi confirmed on Wednesday that the conclave would start as early as March 15, but the exact date still had to be worked out.
Normally when a pope dies, cardinals rush to Rome for the funeral held on the ninth day after his death. Once here, the discreet exchanges they may have had by phone or email with friendly cardinals can turn into face-to-face discussions.
Lombardi said the fact there is no funeral this time should not mean “that the cardinals should not arrive in Rome, start meeting and speaking to each other and reflecting on the state of the Church and on the criteria of the choice of a successor.”
Openly naming candidates is considered bad form, but many use the polite fallback of discussing which qualities the new man should have and leaving unsaid who fits the bill.
Before the conclave, the Vatican holds plenary meetings called general congregations where cardinals discuss issues facing the Church and report on conditions in their home countries. The exact date for these meetings this time has not yet been fixed.
No names are debated at these sessions, but they double as platforms where undeclared candidates attract attention by making speeches and meeting cardinals they don't know.
The general congregations before the 2005 conclave proved decisive for the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as the dean of the College of Cardinals moderated the discussions.
Several cardinals said afterwards his gracious way of conducting the sessions and summing up comments that had been made convinced them he was the best choice for the papacy.
Another subtle influence as the cardinals gather is the role of the so-called “grand electors,” cardinals who may not be in the running but can influence groups to vote for their man.
Polish-born Karol Wojtyla could not have become Pope John Paul without the lobbying by the then Vienna Cardinal Franz Koenig and some German cardinals.
When Benedict named an unusual number of Italian and Curia prelates as cardinals in February 2012, several other Church leaders apparently read this as a bid by his deputy Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to sway the next conclave.
Their revenge came with the Vatileaks scandal, which saw unprecedented leaks of internal Vatican documents that cast Bertone in a very negative light. Benedict's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was sentenced to 18 months jail by a Vatican court last October for leaking the documents, but pardoned by Benedict just before Christmas.
The scandal deeply embarrassed Benedict, who surprised the Church by naming six non-European cardinals in November to partly tilt the balance away from the Old Continent again.
Before the 2005 conclave, Benedict and the liberal favourite Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan stood out from the rest of the field as the most qualified to become pope.
Martini, who died last year, was ill and threw his support behind Buenos Aires Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, but it was not enough to stem the conservative tide swelling for Ratzinger.
No single favourite stands out this time, which could make it harder for the conclave to crystallise around one man and reach the necessary two-thirds majority in a few voting rounds.
Benedict's continued presence at the Vatican, even if he never leaves the small monastery on its grounds where he will live and never speaks in public, could also influence the vote.
Cardinals sometimes opt for a clean break from a former pope, as they did in 1958 in choosing the affable Pope John XXIII after the stern Pope Pius XII, but some may not want to back a departure from the policies of a still living ex-pope. - Reuters