VATICAN CITY — It's a political campaign like no other, with no declared candidates or front-runners and a strict taboo against openly gunning for the job. But the maneuvering is already under way, with one African contender declaring Tuesday it was time for a pope from the developing world — and he was free if God wanted him.
A day after Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world and announced he would retire on Feb. 28, Berlin's archbishop urged mercy for the victor, given the terrible weight of the office. Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera asked for prayers so that the best man might win.
It's all part of the ritual of picking a pope, the mysterious process that takes place behind closed doors at the Sistine Chapel, where the "princes" of the church, the 117 or so cardinals under age 80, vote in next month's conclave.
Once sequestered, they cast secret ballots until they reach a two-thirds majority and elect a new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, sending up smoke signals from the chapel's chimney to tell the world if they have failed (black) or succeeded (white).
In the run-up to the conclave, cardinals engage in a delicate dance, speaking in general terms about the qualities of a future pope and the particular issues facing the church. It's rare for anyone to name names, much less tout himself as a candidate.
If asked, most cardinals routinely invoke the refrain: "He who goes into a conclave a pope comes out a cardinal."
Such genteel public platitudes, however, belie the very real factions within the College of Cardinals that determine the outcome of the vote.
Just because the cardinals all wear the same red cassock and recite the same prayers doesn't mean they all think alike. They have different visions of what the church needs, different views on critical issues and different allegiances: geographical, sentimental and theological.
And this time around, it seems geography is very much front and center, at least in the public debate that was in full swing Tuesday, the first day of the conclave campaign.
One of Africa's brightest hopes to be the next pope, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, said the time was right for a pontiff from the developing world, and that he's available for the job "if it's the will of God."
Turkson said the "young churches" of Africa and Asia have now become solid enough that they have produced "mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership also of this world institution."
Catholics in the developing world don't need a pope from their region to thrive, he said. They have done just fine, growing exponentially with European pontiffs. But Turkson, who heads the Vatican's justice and peace office, said a pope from the global south would "go a long way to strengthen them in their resolve."