AVE MARIA — Southwest Florida has eyes in Vatican City this week as the conclave to select a new pope begins.
The conclave, which begins today, comes one month after Benedict XVI announced he planned to resign, and about two weeks after the pope emeritus formally stepped down.
The fact that the next pope’s predecessor is still alive adds a new dynamic to the conclave.
“For about 600 years, the conclave had followed a papal funeral since papal resignations have rarely been seen,” said Jane Adolphe, an Ave Maria School of Law professor who currently works at the Vatican for the Secretariat of State.
Adolphe is one of several people from Southwest Florida overseas for the historic event.
Kim Scharfenberger also is among those anticipating seeing the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney, signifying the election of a new pope. The Ave Maria University student is studying in Rome for the semester.
“My fellow students and I have tracked the quickest route to the Square for the moment that the news arrives,” she wrote in a Monday email to the Daily News. “Many students have even opted to camp in the Square until the news is announced and they will certainly not be alone.”
In an earlier email to the Daily News, Scharfenberger said she is “so unbelievably grateful that I get to be in Rome during this historic time. Never in my life did I dream that I might be in the Holy City to experience a papal conclave or something of this magnitude. It still doesn’t seem real to me.”
Scharfenberger was part of Benedict’s final papal audience, and called Vatican City “a madhouse” in the days immediately following his retirement announcement. Scharfenberger said the heightened media coverage shows “the Church still has such sway over the world.”
Scharfenberger said she was initially shocked by Benedict’s decision, but has come to peace with it.
“This is a difficult time for the Church. But I think the uncertainty also makes this an absolutely integral time for the Church to grow in leaps and bounds,” she said. “This gives us the opportunity to make ‘leaps of faith.’”
The papal resignation, coupled with the belief that there is no clear front-runner to fill Benedict’s shoes, makes the conclave quite different from the one that selected Benedict in 2005 following Pope John Paul II’s death, said the Rev. Michael Orsi, chaplain at Ave Maria School of Law.
“It’s a very exciting thing,” he said.
On Monday, cardinals held their final debate over whether the Catholic Church needs a manager to clean up the Vatican or a pastor to inspire the faithful. With the countdown under way, speculation has gone into overdrive about who is ahead in the papal campaign.
“There is probably not one strong candidate as there was last time,” Orsi said. “Benedict was a very strong candidate last time. He was very popular with the cardinals. He was a known commodity. It’s not as clear-cut (this time).”
The 2005 conclave elected Benedict XVI after four ballots. The selection may not happen as quickly this time around, but Orsi said he expects a new pope will be selected by Thursday.
Final preparations were under way over the weekend in the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave will take place. Tourists have been banned from the Sistine Chapel as preparations begin, but Orsi said people will begin filling St. Peter’s Square to watch for signs of a new pope once the conclave begins.
Adolphe, who is back to work at the Vatican, said: “Rome is buzzing with tourists” as the conclave is about to begin. But Adolphe said what’s extraordinary is the number of reporters and television crews waiting for the selection process.
The next couple of days, Adolphe said, will be filled with “lots of waiting and looking up at the chimney stack.”
__ The Associated Press contributed to this report.