White smoke appeared from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel Wednesday, and bells from St. Peter’s Basilica have pealed, meaning the 115 Roman Catholic cardinals gathered at the Vatican from all over the world have chosen a new pope. Thousands of Catholics gathered under umbrellas outside St. Peter’s Basilica, eagerly waiting for the church’s 266th pontiff to emerge and greet the faithful from the balcony.
The new pope will replace Benedict XVI, whose surprise resignation last month prompted the cardinals to initiate a conclave, a Latin phrase meaning “with a key,” to pick a new leader for the world’s almost 2 billion Catholics.
It’s not immediately clear who received the necessary two-thirds vote after only two days of the conclave. Several candidates are considered front runners, including Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, who could become the first African pope in modern times.
The new church leader takes over an organization many say is in crisis, from damaging allegations of internal squabbling to the cover-up and abetting of sexual abuse, though the latter issue came to light before Benedict’s papacy.
Some sources say the Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid out as much as $3 billion to settle sexual abuse claims, though others estimate a billion less. At least eight U.S. Catholic dioceses declared bankruptcy protection. Benedict said in a 1998 U.S. visit that he was ashamed of the sex abuse scandal, and assured that the church would not allow pedophiles to become priests.
The Pope Emeritus also faced criticism for his role in overseeing the church’s reaction to the sexual abuse crisis, as well as revelations from the “Vatileaks” incident. The pope’s butler was implicated in the leaking of documents that included what Italian media first characterized as evidence of blackmail and disarray among church leaders regarding how to address growing concerns about money laundering.
Though Benedict basically dismissed those allegations as exaggerated, he remarked that the leaks and results of the ensuing investigation he commissioned had saddened him. Church outsiders have speculated that the results of Benedict’s investigation may have led to his decision to resign from the papacy, a move unprecedented in six centuries.
The new pope will also face pressure to modernize the church on issues from reforming the clergy to allowing contraception. It’s unclear if the cardinals will pick a pope who will change the church or a conservative leader who will remain dedicated to its current principals.