There is no formal nominating process for choosing the man to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, and campaigning for oneself is counterproductive. But the cardinals who will file into the Sistine Chapel next month to elect a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church have been quietly sizing up potential candidates for years.
They were impressed when the young soon-to-be-cardinal of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, told bishops gathered for a momentous synod in Rome last October that the church should listen more and admit its mistakes. They took note a year ago when Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York delivered a winning address on evangelization to the College of Cardinals, the day before the pope gave him the red hat of a cardinal.
They deemed Cardinal Marc Ouellet a gracious host on their visits to the Vatican, where he guides the selection of bishops, but some said he practically put the crowd to sleep during his talk at the International Eucharistic Congress last June in Dublin.
These impressions, collected from interviews with a variety of church officials and experts, may influence the very intuitive, often unpredictable process the cardinals will use to decide who should lead the world's largest church.
The cardinals will gather on March 1, one day after Benedict steps down and departs for Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer home in the hills outside Rome. The cardinals will meet every morning to discuss where the church is headed and, over lunches and dinners, take the measure of one another's characters, talents and experiences, based on personal relationships and observations. But undoubtedly they will also consider geography, doctrinal approach and style.
By the time the 117 cardinal electors enter the conclave to choose the next pope, they must be ready to vote.
According to church rules, the conclave could begin on March 15, but the Vatican spokesman said Saturday that it may start even earlier. The cardinals, eager to finish the process by Palm Sunday on March 24, could reinterpret the mandatory 15-day waiting period, the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said.
The waiting period was intended to allow time for cardinals to gather after the death of a pope, but because Benedict's resignation has already been announced, the cardinals have advance notice and, in fact, many have already begun discussions by phone and e-mail.
"People are reluctant to speak about themselves," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who voted in the conclave that elected Benedict in 2005. "So you go to a friend and say, Can you tell me about cardinal so-and-so?"
"The questions are usually about the qualities you want to see in a pope. Is he a man of prayer, is he deeply rooted in the apostolic faith, can he govern, is he deeply concerned about the poor?" Cardinal George said in a telephone interview. "It matters far less where he happens to be living or where he's from."
The auditions begin in earnest on Sunday when Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an Italian who is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is scheduled to preach the weeklong papal Lenten retreat, attended by Benedict and many of the cardinals and bishops who work in the Vatican. Preaching the Lenten retreat is a high honor, one bestowed on Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger before they became Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
"It's not only going to be seen as a sign of papal favor, but it will give him a platform," said John Thavis, the retired Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, a church-affiliated news agency, and author of "The Vatican Diaries." "People will be listening very carefully."
"The way candidates come to the fore is generally not by what they're doing in their local archdioceses, which is what matters most to their own people," he said. "It's what they do at the center of the universal church."
The case of Cardinal Ravasi exemplifies the way the cardinals will sift and weigh a candidate's attributes against the church's needs. Church leaders now say their greatest challenge is to confront a rising wave of secularism in Europe, the United States and even Latin America, and Cardinal Ravasi has energetically engaged nonbelievers across Europe with high-profile events in cities like Stockholm; Paris; Tirana, Albania; and Bucharest, Romania.
At a time when many prelates say the church must learn to use social media to evangelize, he has more than 35,000 followers on Twitter.
However, to the cardinals and bishops in the Vatican, according to Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert at the magazine L'Espresso, "Ravasi is considered very ambitious and much too inclined to chase the applause of the public."
The other Italians who are more solid candidates, Mr. Magister said, are Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan and a theologian who has often addressed the challenges of secularism and Islam in Europe, and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the archbishop of Genoa and president of the Italian bishops conference.
Personality may be pre-eminent, but geography has increasingly been a factor. With the church shrinking in Europe, and the majority of Catholics now living in Africa, Asia and Latin America, many Catholics are calling for the cardinals to turn the reins over to a leader from the global south. The church has never had a non-European pope in the modern era. (The last, according to Vatican records, was Gregory III, a Syrian, who served until 741.) Benedict has actually increased the percentage of cardinals from Italy and reduced the percentage from the developing world. But they do not necessarily vote in geographic blocs. The cardinals from Italy are said to be divided into factions, according to church experts in Rome, as are those from Latin America.
For those spoken of as front-runners, granting news media interviews in the weeks before a conclave can backfire, church observers say.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, already tarnished by having shown an unforgivingly anti-Islam video at a church event last year, probably hurt his chances recently by speaking to The Daily Telegraph of London as if he had already been elected pope: "It is going to be a life-changing experience, and I think that is what it has been for Benedict and those who have gone before us."
In the past, the cardinals with posts in the Vatican bureaucracy had an advantage because they had spent more time with bishops visiting from around the world. Bishops elevated to cardinal are appointed to Vatican committees and see one another more frequently in Rome.
"The most important thing is personal contact," said Msgr. James P. Moroney, rector of St. John's Seminary, in Boston, and a liturgist who has worked in the Vatican and at the American bishops' conference in Washington. "Someone's reputation is very important, but when you establish a personal relationship, that's when you really make up your mind."
Benedict has intentionally created more opportunities for the cardinals to get to know one another before they elect the next pope, said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia writer who closely follows developments in the hierarchy on his blog, "Whispers in the Loggia."
Benedict elevated new groups of cardinals five times during his eight-year papacy, and on all but one of those occasions he gathered the cardinals together for a daylong meeting before the formal elevation rite. It was at such a meeting in February 2012 that Cardinal Dolan won praise for his talk on evangelization, Mr. Palmo said. "The cardinals all got the chance to size each other up and listen to one another, and there was no seniority in terms of who could speak," he said.
In the last conclave eight years ago, there were alliances of liberal and conservative cardinals. But this time, the spectrum has narrowed because 50 of the cardinals were created by John Paul II and 67 by Benedict, both doctrinal conservatives. (Cardinals age 80 and older cannot participate.)
"This time most of them are on the same page," said Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the North American College, in Rome.
"What's going to be very key in this conclave is the person, the personality," Monsignor Figueiredo said. "Is he a man who can really speak to the hearts of people in this secularized, de-Christianized world where people, let's face it, are leaving the church and need to be attracted to the message?"world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.