When will we see the white smoke?
Workers stand next to stoves in the Sistine Chapel. photograph: reuters
In other words, will we have a pope before Ireland meet Italy in Rome next Saturday or, maybe more pertinently, before St Patrick’s Day? Probably.
It all depends on the 115 cardinal electors and, of course, the Holy Spirit. They, most of them anyhow, have had plenty of time in recent weeks to discuss at length what qualities they want in the new man and, possibly, who that might be.
As for the Holy Spirit? You do have to wonder. As indicated by some choices for pope in the past, it can be said with conviction that the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity has fallen down badly on the job more than once.
You might say that in any other context, and but for her (I write this on International Women’s Day) relatives, her judgment would long since have had terminal consequences where involvement in such weighty matters was concerned.
This is not just me talking.
It is the view of Benedict XVI himself, if put with more subtlety. In 1997, when prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was asked in an interview for Bavarian television: “Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope?”
He replied: “I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked. I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us.”
He continued: “Thus the Spirit’s role should he understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote.
“Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”
Which is a relief.
But the 115 cardinal electors would best beware of electing a successor to Benedict on Friday next, the Ides of March. Considering the task facing their choice as pontiff, he hardly needs to begin his papacy with such a broad load of superstition on his shoulders.
Not that any good Catholic would believe in such things. Or a bad one, either.
But, for the record, the 15th of March was just another ordinary day in the Roman calendar until the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and as illustrated with such loving goriness by Shakespeare in his tragedy Julius Caesar.
It will be recalled that Caesar was stabbed 23 times in the Roman Senate by a group led by Brutus and Cassius. Up to 60 other conspirators were said to have been involved.
Not that such intrigue would ever occur at the Vatican, whatever the month, or Dan Brown, or any other fervid imaginations might think.
And even if they do things differently there.