VATICAN CITY — Cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to elect the next pope amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the Catholic Church has seen in decades: There is apparently no strong consensus candidate, no indication how long voting will last, and no sense that a single man has what it takes to fix the church’s problems.
On the eve of the vote, cardinals offered wildly different assessments of what they are looking for in a pope and how close they are to a decision. It suggested that Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation has left a destabilized leadership and that his final appeal for unity may go unheeded, at least in the early rounds of voting.
Still, the buzz in the papal stakes swirled around Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian seen as favored by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, a choice of Vatican-based insiders intent on preserving the status quo.
Cardinals held their final closed-door debate Monday over whether the church needs more of a manager to clean up the Vatican’s bureaucratic mess or a pastor to inspire the 1.2 billion faithful in times of crisis. The fact that not everyone got a chance to speak clearly indicated there is still unfinished business going into the first round of voting.
‘‘This is a great historical moment but we have got to do it properly, and I think that’s why there isn’t a real rush to get into things,’’ Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier from South Africa said as he left the session Monday.
Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile said that while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had tremendous front-runner status going into the 2005 conclave that elected him pope after just four ballots, the same cannot be said for any of the candidates of 2013.
‘‘This time around, there are many different candidates, so it’s normal that it’s going to take longer than the last time,’’ he said. ‘‘There are no groups, no compromises, no alliances, just each one with his conscience voting for the person he thinks is best, which is why I don’t think it will be over quickly.”
That has not prevented a storm of speculation over who’s ahead in the race.
Scola is affable and Italian but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia. That gives him clout with those seeking to reform the nerve center of the Catholic Church that has been discredited by disclosures of leaks and complaints from cardinals in the field that Rome is inefficient and unresponsive to their needs.
Scherer seems to be favored by Latin Americans and the Curia. The Brazilian has a solid handle on the Vatican’s finances, sitting on the governing commission of the Vatican bank, the Institute for Religious Works, as well as the Holy See’s main budget committee.
As a non-Italian, the archbishop of Sao Paolo would be expected to name an Italian as secretary of state — the Vatican number two who runs day-to-day affairs at the Holy See — another plus for Vatican-based cardinals who would want one of their own running the shop.
The pastoral camp seems to be focusing on two Americans, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York. Neither has Vatican experience. Dolan has admitted his Italian isn’t strong — seen as a handicap for a job in which the lingua franca of day-to-day work is Italian.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada is well-known and well-respected by many cardinals, stemming from his job at the important Vatican office that vets bishop appointments; less well known is that Ouellet has a lovely voice and is known to belt out French folk songs on occasion.
If the leading names fail to reach the 77 votes required for victory in the first few rounds of balloting, any number of surprise names could come to the fore as alternatives.
Those include Cardinal Luis Tagle, archbishop of Manila. He is young — at age 55 the second-youngest cardinal voting — and was named a cardinal only last November. While his management skills have not been tested in Rome, Tagle is seen as the face of the church in Asia, where Catholicism is growing.
Whoever he is, the next pope will face a church in crisis: Benedict XVI spent his eight-year pontificate trying to revive Catholicism amid the secular trends that have made it almost irrelevant in such places as Europe, once a stronghold of Christianity.
Clerical sex abuse scandals have soured many faithful on their church, and competition from rival evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa has drawn souls away.
Closer to home, the next pope has a major challenge awaiting him inside the Vatican walls, after the leaks of papal documents in 2012 exposed ugly turf battles, allegations of corruption, and even a plot purportedly orchestrated by Benedict’s aides to reveal a prominent Italian Catholic editor is gay.
Cardinals heard a briefing Monday from the Vatican secretary of state about another stain on the Vatican’s reputation, the Vatican bank. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who heads the commission of cardinals overseeing the scandal-marred Institute for Religious Works, outlined the bank’s activities and the Holy See’s efforts to clean up its reputation in international financial circles.
Tuesday’s schedule begins with the cardinals checking into the Vatican’s Domus Sanctae Martae, a modern, industrial-feel hotel on the edge of the Vatican gardens.
The dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, will lead the celebration of the ‘‘Pro eligendo Pontificie’’ Mass — the Mass for the election of a pope — inside St. Peter’s Basilica, joined by the 115 cardinals who will vote.
The cardinals will then break for lunch and return for the 4:30 p.m. procession into the Sistine Chapel, singing chants that implore the saints and the Holy Spirit to guide their voting. They will then take their oath of secrecy.
While the cardinals are widely expected to cast the first ballot Tuesday afternoon, technically they don’t have to. The first puffs of smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney should emerge around 8 p.m. Black smoke means no pope, the likely outcome after round one. White smoke means the 266th pope has been chosen.