NEW YORK — 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 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 March 15, but the Vatican spokesman said Saturday that it might start even earlier. The cardinals, eager to finish the process by Palm Sunday on March 24, could reinterpret the mandatory 15-day waiting period, said the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The waiting period was intended to allow time for cardinals to gather after the death of a pope, but because Benedict’s resignation has been announced, the cardinals have advance notice and, in fact, many have begun discussions by phone and e-mail.
The auditions begin in earnest 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.