We will need an astonishing, miraculous pope who can take the Church into a new era

All eyes are focussed on the chimney (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

And so the tension builds. I am not sure how much more of this I can take. But I want to take a great deal more. Right now, my hope is that the Conclave lasts all week, indeed goes on into next week – which will be highly unusual, given that no modern conclave has lasted so long.

If it ends tonight, the chances are that the front-runner will have garnered the necessary votes through an unstoppable rise in his support, as reportedly happened to Cardinal Ratzinger the last time. Whoever this frontrunner is, and the commentators have fixed on Cardinal Scola for the role, he would represent the ‘obvious’ candidate. Again, that was true of Cardinal Ratzinger – he was the obvious candidate, indeed the only serious candidate, towering above all his colleagues.

But now, one senses, the whole discourse has changed. An obvious candidate will not do any more, because the challenges facing the Church are so various and different. The new Pope will have to be a man of strength, who will cleanse the Vatican of corruption, in the wake of the Vatileaks scandal. The new Pope will also have to be someone who will at long last help us all move on from the scandals of child abuse. The last eight years have seen the world and the Church stuck in a conversational rut on this matter. A new Pope needs to move the conversation on, not just for the sake of the Church, but for the sake of the world too. The current dialogue of the deaf is simply not good for anyone, and certainly not good for the cause of public reason.

The new Pope will not only have to be whiter than white on the issue of child abuse – and have no skeletons in his background – but he will also have to be the sort of person who will inaugurate a new era in the Church, and who will consign the era of Vatileaks, the era of the Vatican bank scandals, and the era of the child abuse scandal to history – without of course losing sight of the lessons we should learn from all three. That is going to take more than an “obvious” candidate. It is going to take an exceptional one.

When John Paul I stepped out onto the balcony, none of us had heard of him, and he soon changed the weather in the Church. So too did John Paul II, another unknown. Perhaps most of all, it was Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) who changed the atmosphere in the Church. Old, very fat, with a background in Papal diplomacy, Roncalli was not the sort of man you would immediately mark down as charismatic. But the Cardinals in conclave spotted him, just as they did Cardinals Luciani and Wojtyla. Three times in the twentieth century we witnessed a Papal miracle, an astonishing Pope. It can happen again. I am praying it will. But it may take time.