So this is how a papal election gets going.

On the conclave's first afternoon, the 115 cardinal-electors gather in the Apostolic Palace's intimate (as intimate as things get in the Vatican), nearly 500-year-old Pauline Chapel.

There they hear a sermon telling them they're obliged to vote for the best man among them to lead the Roman Catholic Church.   Then, wearing what's called "choir dress" — cassock, surplice, cape and hat — and singing the 9th-century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, they proceed out and up the Scala Regia (the Regal Staircase) into the Sistine Chapel.

Once they're there and settled, the doors are locked "with key," which is what conclave means, and the voting begins. The question is: How do they make up their minds?

According to the people who talk to cardinals, what's on their minds at a time like this is essentially what's on the minds of the rest of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

That lets us match what we might call the seven Big Questions against the 15 Big Contenders — the papabili — plus offer two notes of context.

One is that there are no real frontrunners this time unlike in 2005 (when I might have been the world's only religion journalist who said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wouldn't be elected pope).

The other is that no one on today's list can be labelled a progressive; they're either conservative or really conservative.

The questions

The seven essential questions the cardinals will be asking themselves are:

  • Will a candidate be a strong manager? (Will he clean the deadwood out of the Vatican and run a tight ship? The consensus on both John Paul II and Benedict XVI is that they did neither.)
  • Will he be a good pastoral pope? (In other words, will he be able to defuse or at least soften the ruptures and conflict over ideology throughout the church and reach out to dissidents? Benedict reached out to the church's conservative right, with some disastrous consequences, and John Paul reached out to no one.)

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Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines. At 55, he is one of the youngest contenders on most lists. But 'when he talks, people listen.' (Reuters)

  • Should he be from outside the West? (Two-thirds of the church's adherents now live outside Europe and North America. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, placed second to Ratzinger on all four ballots that it took to elect him Benedict XVI in 2005, according to reports afterward. One North American cardinal said the Latin Americans might have claimed the top job "if they'd had their act together.")
  • Will he a strong communicator? (Or, in church talk, a good evangelist, meaning can he engage atheists, agnostics and the fallen-away, a concern that is hyper important to the Europeans and North Americans?)
  • Will he be the right age? (The target zone is 70.)
  • Will he carry baggage? (Any history of scandal or unseemly conflict? Or of not taking appropriate action against sexually abusive priests?)
  • Will he be a strong teacher? (Benedict XVI would have had an A+ for what's called in church language "the magisterium," the teaching.)

Now the contenders

Beginning with the Africans:

Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, 69, of Tanzania.

As the elected president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), he has the respect of his peers. He's also been adept at defending Benedict's ban on contraceptives in the fight against AIDS without aggravating the argument.

He has, however, called homosexuality one of the most heinous sins on Earth. "Homosexuality is craziness," he said. "How can people of the same sex have a sexual relationship … they are meeting to do what?"

He has no experience in Rome.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, 67, of Guinea.

Unlike Pengo, Sarah has had considerable Rome experience as the No. 2 man in the powerful Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (officially known as Propaganda Fide), and is the current very hands-on president of the Vatican's charitable agency, Cor Unum.

He's had a meteoric rise through the church hierarchy, being named an archbishop at 34. He has said that homosexuality, abortion and contraception to be antithetical to African culture.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, of Ghana. 

He has broad pastoral experience, he's highly personable, straight-talking, and well-respected as an effective communicator across Africa where Catholic Church membership has increased from 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000. His Rome experience is limited, however.

Like many Third World cardinals, he's strong on global peace and justice issues. He's vehemently attacked economic globalization, which he says is a far more important issue to his part of the world than sexuality.

Nonetheless, he's called the legal sanctions against homosexuals in many parts of Africa "probably commensurate with tradition" and questioned whether protection of homosexuals falls under human rights.

The Asians:

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, 65, of Sri Lanka.

Ranjith has extensive Vatican experience, including as a papal diplomat. He has a solid pastoral background, having served as archbishop of Colombo since 2005.

He's also considered to be on the church's ultra-conservative fringe.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of the Philippines.

He is three years younger than John Paul II was when he was elected pope, which means he could be around for a long time. It's the biggest obstacle to him being given the nod this time.

He is a hugely popular, charismatic and powerful communicator, a scholar, a staunch defender of the poor, an environmentalist, and a proponent of the church taking a strong stance against clerical sex abuse. As John Allen, columnist for the U.S. National Catholic Reporter, says of Tagle: "When he talks, people listen."

He also has strong pastoral experience but no Vatican experience.

The Europeans:

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 68, of Vienna.

He is really the only non-Italian among the perceived frontrunners, and probably comes the closest of the papabili to being progressive.

He blocked the firing of an openly homosexual man, and he told an Austrian television audience that someone suffering from AIDS might use a condom as a "lesser evil."

He has also openly criticized the Vatican leadership (and been reprimanded for doing so) on some of the ways in which it handled sex abuse by clerics. Plus, he's hinted that he would be open to the idea of married clergy.

He's a scholar, he's written extensively about how to engage secular Europe, and has been described as having "a high comfort level" with the media. He has no Vatican experience.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 70, of Genoa.

Bagnasco is chair of the Italian Episcopal Conference. He received death threats for opposing gay legal rights (he compared homosexuality to incest and pedophilia); he is also opposed to abortion and euthanasia, but has been considered a gentler, less strident spokesman for the church in Italy than a number of his colleagues.

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The most interesting man in the church? Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. (Reuters)

On social issues, he has opposed efforts by Italy's business community to dilute job security and argued that people have a right to work.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Ravasi is "the most interesting man in the church," says the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, probably the leading anglophone journalist on world Catholicism.

Described as a biblical scholar of prodigious learning but with a strong popular touch, Ravasi lectures around Rome and Italy to overflow audiences, often composed of young people.

He's engaged the church with the worlds of science, art and culture. He created his "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project to meet non-believers not only in Rome but in a number of European capitals.

He could be the perfect knight to confront secular, morally relativist Europe, but his major drawback is he has no pastoral experience. He's never been in a diocese.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan.

Scola is a theological teacher-intellectual in the Benedict mould, but with more folksiness than the retired Benedict. He also has both pastoral and Vatican experience.

In 2004 he launched the Oasis project, which has evolved into a useful Christian-Islam platform for dialogue.

His book, The Nuptial Mystery, was critiqued by a reviewer in Commonweal magazine as blaming feminism for homosexuality "because the more women act like men, the more men are likely to want to have sex with other men."

The Latin Americans:

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 77, of Argentina.

He is the Jesuit intellectual who was the second choice of the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger eight years ago. His humility is celebrated; he rides a bus to work, wears an ordinary priest's robe, and lives with an old priest in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop's luxurious residence.

He had his clergy wear garments of penitence for sins committed under the country's military dictatorship. He also espouses church teaching on homosexuality, abortion and contraception. He has no Vatican experience.

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Pope Benedict and Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the one-two finishers in 2005, meet again at the Vatican in 2007. (Reuters)

Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, 70, of Mexico.

Carrera has been such a strong critic of globalization and political corruption that the Mexican government threatened to pass a law forbidding priests from commenting on politics.

He has criticized the U.S. media for exaggerated attacks on the church over sex abuse by clergy. He also has been close to conservative religious movements such as the disgraced Legionaries of Christ (whose leader was instructed to retire to a life of prayer and penitence after being accused of sexual misconduct).

In 2003, he declared that Christians should not consult horoscopes because the only star that truly influences human destiny is the star of Bethlehem.

He has no Vatican experience.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, 70, of Honduras.

He's Cardinal Cool, tall, handsome, a trained pilot who plays both the piano and the saxophone, speaks six languages, is charismatic and in demand as a public speaker.

He's shown sympathy for liberation theology, attacked the neo-colonialism of global capitalism and represented the Vatican at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

He's also said any Catholic politician who supports abortion is automatically excommunicated.

In 2002, he caused an uproar in the U.S. by comparing media criticism of the church's sex-abuse scandals to persecution by Hitler and Stalin, and suggested the U.S. media was trumpeting the scandals in order to distract attention from the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

These views brought angry reaction from sex abuse victims and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69. 

Sandri is an Argentinian-born Vatican diplomat and Curia prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches with a reputation as a well-liked and adept administrator, which will please a number of cardinals.

He's also seen as neither tainted with any of the Vatican's foul-ups nor overly burdened by ideology. He has, however, no pastoral experience and no track record as a teacher or salesman for the church.

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, of Brazil.

He has acquired a reputation as a deft broker between conservative and progressive elements in the church, capable of avoiding what Vatican watchers have called negative tonal utterances.

In other words, he can say the same things about homosexuality and abortion as more combative cardinals, but they don't sound as bad.

He also supported the environmental movement and liberation theology's social justice aims (but not its Marxist philosophical underpinnings).

He was posted to the Vatican's important Congregation of Bishops from 1994 to 2001.

The lone North American:

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, of Canada, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. 

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Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet. (Reuters)

Ouellet is the right age. Plus, he has the intellect, the theological and academic smarts, and the pastoral and Vatican experience without being mud-splattered by any of the Vatican's recent stumbles.

He's not Third World but neither is he American, where the sex-abuse scandals and cover-ups ran deep, or European.

But as archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada, he flopped as an evangelizer in one of the church's most arid territories, and has left bad memories behind him.

So, the scores

If you want to try your hand at handicapping this race, you can look at it this way:

All but Tagle and Bergoglio make it into the age zone.

Sarah, Ranjith, Bagnasco (by propinquity), Ravasi, Sandri, Scherer and Ouellet have significant Vatican experience.

Pengo, Sarah, Turkson, Ranjith, Tagle, Schönborn, Bagnasco, Scola, Bergoglio, Carrera, Maradiaga, Scherer and Ouellet have the requisite pastoral experience.

Schoenborn, Ravasi, Scola, Bergoglio and Ouellet are scholars and teachers.

Turkson, Tagle, Ravasi and Maradiaga are high-level communicators.

Pengo, Sarah, Turkson, Ranjith, Tagle, Bergoglio, Carrera, Maradiaga and Scherer are from outside the West.

Tagle, Ravasi, Bergoglio, Sandri and Scherer would seem to have the least baggage.