The cardinals tasked with electing the new Pope know little of each other. A small group, the most distinguished among them, have the informal task of building consensus. They are few, but in their hands lies the outcome of the election. They can easily be considered the 16 pillars of the Church. Here are their respective identities.
Prelates from the United States and Canada command the considerable leadership that Benedict XVI seeks in his predecessor. His top five are all from these two North American countries.
One of the most admired and praised by other cardinals is Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, a Capuchin friar, and a strong supporter of the New Evangelization. Among the list, you will also findTimothy Dolan, the optimistic and greatly charismatic archbishop of New York, as well as Cardinal Donald Wuerl from Washington, D.C., author on faith and mediator between the Church and American politicians.
Two other key figures hail from Canada. Marc Ouellet from Montreal served as a missionary in Colombia and is now prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, as well as an expert on dialogue with Orthodox and Protestants. Meanwhile, Thomas Collins, the archbishop from Toronto, is known for his simplicity and charisma.
The country with the most cardinals will be in Italy. They represent an important and vocal block. Among their leaders is the highly revered Archbishop of Milan Angelo Scola, intellectual disciple of Benedict XVI, whom the Pope has visited twice. Genoan Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy is widely regarded for his mediating skills.
They will also take into consideration Gianfranco Ravasi, the cardinal that will lead the last spiritual exercises of Benedict XVI as Pope.
A candidate for continental Europe is the archbishop of Budapest, Peter Erdö, always smiling, optimistic, frank, active, and an evangelizer who has urged his priests to meet personally with the millions of people within his archdiocese.
The first of the two leading candidates from Latin America is Honduran Oscar Andrés RodríguezMaradiaga, a pilot who also plays the saxophone. The second is Brazilian Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of San Paolo, a simple and discrete man but with a great reputation back home.
The only cardinal from Oceania is Australian George Pell. He is admired in Rome and is one of the few prelates Benedict XVI would seek advice on delicate matters. Two years ago, he publicly debated atheist Richard Dawkins on religion.
The main African representative is John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria. He has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize along with a Muslim leader for their commitment to peace. Benedict XVI created him cardinals during the most recent conclave.
From Asia, the three leading papal electors include Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, who monitors closely the aid to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and who, along with Onaiyekan, represents Christians persecuted because of their faith. One of the youngest cardinals is the Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Tagle, 55. He is a theologian admired by the media in the Philippines, as well as by Joseph Ratzinger. Among them you will also find Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay, India, and the newly chosen president of the India's bishops conference.
It is very likely one of them will come out of the conclave as Pope, or, at the very least, chosen with their help. However, it is a decision that is entirely up to the 117 cardinals that will enter the conclave. And not one of them have said who their leading candidate will be.