Secrecy surrounds the selection of a new pope in Rome, but some local Catholics are lifting the veil — at least as much as they can from 5,000 miles away.
They are reading blogs by Catholic writers, receiving email alerts from Catholic journalists in Vatican City and tapping into websites such as popeelection2013 for updates and insights.
They can name not just U.S. cardinals but also those from Africa, Austria and other countries who are considered potential contenders for the papacy.
Josh Van Dyke and other Catholics see this as different from picking a president because they believe this election is guided by the Holy Spirit. But they believe it's smart to stay informed so they are ready when white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel's chimney, signaling the election of the man who will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
“If we put it in God's hands, He's not going to mess up,'' said Van Dyke, a campus missionary at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “But we need to be informed on what's going on in Rome.”
Tuesday will mark the start of the papal conclave, the closed gathering where cardinals vote for the next pope.
The cardinals will gather in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon, Rome time, and begin anonymous balloting for a successor to Benedict XVI, who resigned the papacy on Feb. 28 — the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years.
There are plenty of places to track down background on the conclave.
You can check vaticaninsider.com, which carries stories from seemingly every angle, such as one with the headline “The Conclave from a Middle Eastern Perspective.”
An article on newadvent.org even describes the assigned seating for the cardinals.
Websites also provide broader information, such as background on the 115 cardinals who will elect the next pope.
Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, said some Catholics feel an obligation to learn as much as possible about the process and the cardinals.
There is a strong Catholic tradition that recognizes the power of knowledge in decision-making, she said. St. Ignatius Loyola, for example, taught that an important part of prayerful discernment is gathering information.
Van Dyke, 23, said his research on the papal election has included learning about cardinals discussed as possible contenders, such as Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, archbishop of Vienna.
He learned that Schoenborn was an editor of the latest edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a popular guidebook in which the church sets forth what Catholics believe.
“That shows he knows the faith front and back,” Van Dyke said.
Michael Krell of Omaha learned that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is popular in West Africa, a part of the world where the Catholic Church is growing.
Krell uses Google to track down information and receives daily email alerts from a Catholic journalist covering the proceedings in Vatican City.
Mary Eileen Andreasen, director of adult faith formation at Omaha's St. Wenceslaus Church, said the papal selection fascinates her and other Catholics because so many major issues face the church, such as the sex abuse scandal and the role of women.
“We are in such a historic time,'' she said.
Regina Heywood, an Omaha mother of five, said she is tracking the pope selection partly to help her children learn about the process. She home-schools them and wants them to understand the history of the conclave.
She also said that while it's interesting to read why certain cardinals might be considered favorites for the papacy, she keeps it all in perspective.
“My job as a Catholic is to pray that the cardinals will select the man God has intended to be pope,'' she said.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, who wrote about the conclave process in his 1996 book, “Inside the Vatican,” said each cardinal looks for three things in a papal candidate.
“Someone who has the same values and vision of the church that he has. ... Someone with whom he has a positive relation. They all want someone as pope who is their friend and will listen to them. ... And someone who will go over well in their own country, or at least not embarrass them.”
Reese said American cardinals, for example, want a pope who understands the church sex abuse crisis. A cardinal from a Muslim country, he added, wouldn't want a pope who has said provocative things about Islam.
Given those requirements, it's only natural that there be debate in the run-up to the conclave, and on the sidelines once it's under way.
“It's not like an American election with nominating speeches,” said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. Once the conclave starts, “all they do is vote, so all the politicking takes place over dinner and espresso and cigarettes.”
This story includes material from the Associated Press.
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» Members of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals are appointed by the pope. Upon the resignation or death of a pope, they elect the new pontiff.
» Many cardinals head a local diocese. Some serve as Vatican scholars, diplomats and administrators. They also lead congregations and enforce church discipline, examine candidates for sainthood and select new bishops.
» Of the 209 current cardinals, 117 are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote for the new pope. However, the cardinals agreed Friday to exempt two eligible cardinals: Julius Darmaatmadja, archbishop emeritus of Jakarta, who is ill; and Keith O'Brien of Scotland, who recently resigned after admitting to sexual misconduct. That brings the number of cardinal electors to 115, two-thirds of whom — or 77 — must approve a candidate.
» More than half the eligible cardinals were appointed by Pope Benedict XVI; the rest were appointed by Pope John Paul II.
» Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) was elected in 2005 on the fourth round of voting, just one day after the conclave began, in one of the fastest papal elections in recent times. His predecessor, John Paul II (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla), was chosen in 1978 after eight ballots over three days. In the past 100 years, no conclave has lasted longer than five days.
— World-Herald press services