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Top pope contenders include Canadian: pundits & bettors

The million dollar question in Rome right now: who will be the next pope?

The 115 cardinals elected with the responsibility of choosing the next pope are forbidden to speak publicly on the matter. And with no polls, it’s been left to Vatican pundits and even bookies to speculate on the contenders for the top job to head the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

The same names have been circulating in recent weeks as the cardinals gather for pre-conclave meetings in Rome ahead of the conclave where they will select the next pontiff to replace Pope Benedict XVI. (He became pope emeritus on Feb. 28 when he resigned at 85, citing his advanced age.)

Mark McGowan, a professor at the University of Toronto’s department of religion, has his own top 10 list of papabili (contenders to the throne) that includes a Canadian cardinal, four Latin American cardinals, two African cardinals, two European cardinals and two Asian cardinals.

Some Vatican observers like Father Thomas Reese — who’s a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center  in Washington, D.C. — ignore the lists of potential popes altogether, saying the cardinals will be looking for several qualities.

“They all talk about the need for a holy man, for an intelligent bright person, for someone who could communicate and for someone that can reform the Vatican Curia,” he said.

“I describe [what they’re looking for] as Jesus Christ with an MBA,” Reese said. “That’s what I think they’re looking for.”

It’s during the coffee breaks and informal gatherings this week between the general meetings of the congregation that front-runners will emerge, he said.

“This is the opportunity where they get to size each other up and ask each other who do you think we should elect, what are the problems facing the church,” he said.

“Gradually they start to form a consensus around two or three candidates, and I think by the time they go into the conclave there will be some clear candidates. We’re just about there.”

Betting buzz

The buzz over who’ll replace Benedict even has bookies excited. The website oddschecker.com has been tracking the odds of 90 candidates by 15 betting sites, including Paddy Power of Ireland.

Paddy Power ranks Italy’s Angelo Scola with the best odds of becoming pope at 11 to 4, followed by Ghana’s Peter Turkson (3 to 1), Canada’s Marc Ouellet (8 to 1) and Brazil’s Odilo Scherer (10 to 1).

However, it also has U2’s Bono at 1,000 to 1, former prime minister Tony Blair at 5,000 to 1 and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong at 10,000 to 1.

A Canadian pope?

Cardinal Marc Ouellet of La Motte, Que., 68, was archbishop of Quebec City from 2002 to 2010 before heading over to Rome to lead the Vatican’s office that vets all bishop nominations.

That high-profile position, his conservative theological leanings and missionary work in Latin America make him a favourite choice of many pundits. Plus he speaks six languages.

“He’s obviously someone they could give a nod to,” McGowan said.

On being pope, Ouellet told CBC News this week in the only interview with Canadian media, “I have to be ready even if I think that probably others could do it better.”

European possibilities

If a European is elected pope, it’ll likely be an Italian, such as odds favourites, Scola, 71, and Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, McGowan says.

Scola has served as Patriarch of Venice and was appointed in June 2011 as archbishop of Milan, which is considered the springboard to the papacy. The National Catholic Register describes him as like Pope Benedict “but with a better popular touch” and he has good working relationship with Muslims.

“He looks and feels like he could be an excellent communicator,” McGowan said.

Ravasi, 70, is a scripture scholar and president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He was chosen by the pope to lead his final Lenten retreat in February at the end of which Benedict thanked him for his “brilliant” work.  He’s another multilingual cardinal but with no pastoral experience.

The Latin Americans

The four possible contenders from Latin America are Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Jorge Bergoglio, Leonardo Sandri and Scherer.

Maradiaga, who is Archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, is outspoken on social justice issues, very personable, multilingual and at 70 within the acceptable age range making him not too old for the job, McGowan said.

Bergoglio, who is Archbishop of Buenes Aires, is of Italian heritage. A conservative theologian with a background in sciences, he’s known for his simple lifestyle and humility and well known on the ballot, McGowan said. But his age may be working against him. At 76 he “could be seen as someone from yesterday,” McGowan said.

Sandri, like Bergoglio, is an Argentinean and the son of Italian immigrants. He’s also very well known because he was a diplomat in the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps.

He’s well liked, outgoing, leads a simple lifestyle and from Latin America which has the biggest share of Catholics. The downside may be that he’s too much of a Vatican insider, McGowan said.

Scherer is a Brazilian cardinal of German heritage. The Archbishop of Sao Paulo is considered a pragmatic moderate, in the right age range at 63 and has administrative experience running the Congregation of Bishops.

African hopefuls

The two candidates who could be the first black pope are Turkson, 64, of Ghana, and Robert Sarah of Guinea.

Turkson became archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992 and is currently the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. A biblical scholar, he’s friendly, open and viewed as centre-left and would come into the papacy without any baggage from the church’s sex abuse scandals, according to the National Catholic Register.

The main criticism against him in recent days was an interview he did with the Daily Telegraph in which he spoke as if becoming pope was a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, Sarah has a solid track record when it comes to social justice issues, speaking out against corrupt regimes. He demanded the release of the opposition leader when the ruling Guinea regime tossed him in jail after the 1999 election.

Sarah is president of the Vatican’s charitable agency Cor Unum. He speaks three languages and is considered fairly conservative with lots of pastoral experience as archbishop of Conakry in Guinea for 22 years, according to the National Catholic Register.

Potential Asian nominees

On the tail end of the list are two Asian cardinals, Malcolm Ranjith, 65, from Sri Lanka and Luis Tagle of the Philippines. Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, is respected, has conservative theological leanings and well connected in Rome, while Tagle of Manila, 55, is young, media savvy and touted as the Great Asian Hope. He’s a theologian with lots of huge pastoral experience but no Vatican experience.