The conclave guessing game: lessons from a numbers geek

Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Cardinals from around the world in the Sistine Chapel March 12, 2013, as they began the conclave to elect a new pope. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — A year-ago today, as the world’s cardinals solemnly filed into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, news outlets, blogs and betting sites were abuzz with papal prognostications.

I wanted to take an informal stab at it myself using some tips from the U.S. statistician, Nate Silver, who had correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

I thought it’d be a fun experiment to apply some of the approaches he had outlined in his book, “The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t.”

Here’s what I looked at in the few days before the conclave:

  • What were the challenges facing the world and the church in 1978 and 2005?
  • What “winning” qualities did Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — the men who were elected those years — possess?

From there, I drafted a rough list of what church leaders and others were saying in 2013 about the pressing challenges.

Here are just a few examples:

Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Shut off from the outside world, cardinals from around the world cast ballots to elect a new pontiff in a conclave that began March 12, 2013. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

  • Religious freedom, oppression in parts of Asia; persecution and violence in the Middle East and Africa; infringements in the western world.
  • Secularism and globalization.
  • Latin America losing Catholics, Asia growing.
  • Church needing to be “attractive,” new evangelization and need to be “outspoken.”
  • Making Jesus the center of liturgy, lives, prayer.
  • Problem of sex abuse.
  • Catechism and solid foundations of faith.
  • Attention to young people.
  • Orthodoxy, importance of Catholic identity for universities, charities.
  • Lapsed Catholics; family; sacraments.
  • Vocations.

Then I scribbled down some of the winning qualities that people were looking for and would be needed to face the challenges:

  • A spiritual leader (strong prayer life).
  • Energy, strength to travel; but how young/old is too young/old?
  • Can clean up Curia/problems that make church look bad.
  • Makes faith attractive.
  • Smart; simple, clear communication.
  • Honest, down-to-earth.
  • See young people as important.
  • Represents the message the church wants to send the world.
  • From Asia, Latin America, Africa.
  • Charismatic; humble; multilingual.
Cardinals enter Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel in prayer March 12, 2013, as they begin the conclave. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Silver said also to list any biases that might affect the way the data is read. So I listed the common opinion that the pope “not be Italian” and the need for someone “young” or with “strength of mind and body,” as Pope Benedict himself had said.

Then I looked at several cardinals and their lives, and rated them according to how well each man possessed the needed/winning qualities to confront today’s challenges. I calculated what chances they had of winning, of losing, and of having won in the past.

I only had time to look at 14 cardinals out of the 117 electors. But one of those men was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, whom I gave an 80% chance of winning and a 60% chance of losing (mostly because of his age — he was 76, and lack of languages).

bergoglio stats

A print-out of cardinal-electors, showing my Nate Silver-inspired stat results on March 12, 2013, for Cardinal Bergoglio’s chances of being elected pope.

But those pretty good percentages put him behind what I had calculated for Pope Francis’ close friend, 70-year-old Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. I had given him a 90% chance of winning and a 10% chance of losing, noting his focus on the poor, writings on globalization, his strong voice for Latin America, language abilities, courage to “put out into the deep,” his work on sanctity of life; and importance of evoking God in a secular world.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila got the next highest marks with a 90% chance of winning, but a 20% chance of losing (too young) noting the following “winning” qualities: “Asian, rides the bus, humble, Vatican II scholar, has ‘star power,’ intellect,” communicates clearly, with focus on youth.

CANDLES ADORN SCULPTURE NEAR HOLY SPIRIT WINDOW IN ST. PETER'S BASILICA

Window of the Holy Spirit above Bernini’s sculpture, “The Throne of St. Peter,” in St. Peter’s Basilica Feb. 19, 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The good thing about Silver’s approach is you’re supposed to adjust the percentages as you collect more data and I didn’t have that much time to find out more about Cardinal Bergoglio. Had I known he was another friend of public transport, I would have boosted his Win score up to 85%!

But probably the best lesson Silver offers is to never forget the limitations posed by human nature, our biases and our limited access to all the information out there.

We want to try to predict the future and be sure about what’s going to happen. But, he said we should be more humble about our ability to perceive and predict the world. And then when you add the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit at work, well, then all bets are off!

Seven historic weeks, told in five and a half minutes

From Pope Benedict’s announcement that he would resign, to Pope Francis’ celebration of Easter Mass: images of one of the most extraordinary papal transitions in history — narrated by participants and first-hand observers.

The cardinal walking in Piazza Navona who became pope

Father Rosica participates in press briefing at Vatican

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Media Foundation, has been assisting Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, left, Vatican spokesman, with the daily press briefings. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, who has been helping the Vatican press hall during the interregnum, gave journalists his impressions of last night’s election of Pope Francis. We thought we would share his reflections with you here:

Sunday night we were working late and when I came out of the office, we walked over to Piazza Navona and we met Cardinal Bergoglio half the way and walked with him back to the Casa del Clero [the residence where the cardinal was staying]. We had a lovely conversation on the way. And just at the end, he took my hands and he said, “Pray for me.” And I said, “Are you nervous?” and he said, “A little bit!”

He’s a wonderful man I’ve known him since 2001 when I prepared World Youth Day. The simplicity is so striking and yet it is not a simplicity that’s without a solid foundation… I was stunned at what happened last night, absolutely stunned….

I didn’t expect the pontificate to begin with “buona sera” [good evening]. He chose not to follow the beautiful ritual in Latin. But it’s clear that he is the pastor who is coming to meet his people in the diocese of Rome.

And I close my eyes, and we shouldn’t make comparisons right away, but I couldn’t help but feel the presence of John XXIII, the smile of John Paul I, that courage and firmness of John Paul II and the solid-rootedness in Jesus Christ of Benedict XVI.

So what I found last night, and I thought about a long time when I finally got home at three o’clock this morning, is that the story continues: we have a pope and we have a shepherd and he’s going to build it on a solid foundation.

Humo Blanco de la Capilla Sixtina señala nuevo pontífice

CIUDAD DEL VATICANO (CNS) – Sorprendiendo a las multitudes a nivel mundial, nubes de humo blancas brotarón de la chimenea en el techo de la Capilla Sixtina este 13 de marzo, lo que indica un Papa ha sido elegido en la quinta votación del cónclave.

La señal de humo se activó a las 7:05 p.m. Los 115 cardenales se reunieron para elegir el 266 sucesor de San Pedro, el nuevo líder de la Iglesia Católica. Los votos anteriores, tomados a finales del 12 de marzo, y dos votos a la mañana siguiente, resultarón en nubes de humo negro.

El Vaticano estima que dentro de una hora el cardenal Jean-Louis Tauran, el diácono cardenal de alto rango, saldrá al balcón de la Basílica de San Pedro y confirmará la elección con la frase “Habemus Papam.” (Tenemos Papa ).

Boston cardinal draws blockbuster crowd of fans to tiny church

ROME (CNS) — It took a “papabile” American cardinal as guest celebrant one Sunday to fill the pews of a small Roman church, which is normally trafficked only by hordes of backpack-slinging tourists.

Instead of dog-eared guidebooks in hand, people were actually looking for hymnals, extra copies of which had to be fetched from the sacristy by parish assistants.

The narrow church, which holds about 100 people, was packed standing-room only on the Fourth Sunday of Lent with both Italians and Americans, and dozens of journalists.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston visited his titular church of Santa Maria della Vittoria March 10 with the no-nonsense, businesslike air of a pastor who was there simply to preside over a liturgy.

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U.S. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston visits his titular church, Santa Maria della Vittoria, a tiny church more often teeming with tourists than parishioners. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz) (March 10, 2013)

Wearing his bright scarlet cardinal robes, he alighted from a dark sedan with Vatican City State license plates and strode straight up the steps: no waving or fanfare as he moved confidently through the crowd of cameramen.

Once inside, he put on his cornered-biretta hat and sprinkled holy water as he marched down the center aisle to the sacristy.

Little did he know that, while he was there to celebrate Mass for the local community, the people in the pews and the Discalced Carmelites who run the church were there to unabashedly cheer him on as the next pope.

“Eminence, we wish, and I say this with great hope, that this will be your last visit as titular cardinal,” Discalced Carmelite Father Stefano Guernelli, the church’s rector and former provincial superior, told the cardinal in his opening remarks.

He said they were praying for him to be the next pontiff, “however, without trying to push or overturn the Lord’s plans.”

“But you must promise that if our prayers are answered, your first visit as pope” will be back to “our church and yours, Santa Maria della Vittoria,” he said to rousing applause.

The priest said he had been telling journalists that “Cardinal Sean” is a “kind and friendly pastor, humble yet decisive in his actions because he truly loves the church.”

The only thing going against him “perhaps is that you are a friar and a Capuchin at that,” he said tongue-in-cheek, as the bearded Capuchin cardinal smiled.

Speaking with his deep, measured voice, Cardinal O’Malley said Mass and his homily in near perfect Italian, stumbling just a few times on the language’s tricky polysyllabic terms.

P1010960

Cardinal O’Malley gave his homily in Italian. He asked for prayers the Holy Spirit would help the cardinal electors choose a pope “who will confirm us in the faith and do the utmost possible to make visible the love of the Good Shepherd.” (CNS photo/Carol Glatz) (March 10, 2013)

He began his homily thanking everyone for coming to pray “for our church in these days that are so important for us.”

Known for a sharp wit delivered with a poker face, the cardinal continued off-the-cuff, talking about the time he took possession of the Roman church in 2006 and teased the Carmelites that he was thinking of taking the church’s famed statue of St. Teresa of Avila, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, back to Boston.

But he said the friars told him Napoleon had tried and, like the emperor, he, too, would fail.

“So it seems to me that (the friars) have never forgiven me” because the church rector wants him to become pope, the cardinal said.

“I want to assure him that after the conclave I will come back as your cardinal and perhaps I will take St. Teresa back to Boston,” he insisted with a wry smile.

He imperceptibly then switched gears to his serious side and gave a homily based on the day’s Gospel reading of the Prodigal Son, noting how many children of God today leave their father’s house — the church — because of “ignorance, a lack of feeling welcome, negative experiences, scandals, spiritual mediocrity” and other reasons.

Just like the father in Jesus’ parable, the church too must demonstrate a welcoming evangelical joy toward its lost sheep “without creating a difficult life toward those who have drifted and who ask to return.”

Because often they have suffered a lot after being far from God and they, like all people, are looking for real joy, the kind only God can give, he said.

Lent is the perfect time to return to one’s family “and feel that joy of being at home,” he said.

He ended his 13-minute homily by praying the Holy Spirit would help him and the other cardinal electors choose a new pope “who will confirm us in the faith, do the utmost possible to make visible the love of the Good Shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep, to heal the sick and to embrace the prodigal son.”

Giulia Varrasso of Rome, who belongs to a nearby parish, said she had come to Santa Maria della Vittoria because she greatly admired the cardinal and wanted “to know him better.”

Cardinal O’Malley was her pick for pope, she said “because he’s a Franciscan” and she loves his humility, witty and laid-back style, and the religious order’s attention to the “weak and vulnerable.”

“I also like that he’s an American,” who can lead the Vatican out of its old ways of doing things and leave behind “the old mechanisms of power,” she said.

He also can renew the church “because he really understands these scandals” and has fought for more transparency, she said.

“I’m cheering for Cardinal Sean,” said Luigi Segoloni, who is originally from near Assisi, the home of St. Francis.

“We need fresh air, enough with these Italians and Europeans, for goodness sake,” said the Roman resident.

The U.S. cardinal is “very good, he made a very good impression with his homily; he has energy and he’s very fatherly,” said Segoloni.

Daughter of St. Paul Sister Germana Santos, who lived in Boston many years, praised the “very courageous measures” the cardinal took after he arrived at an archdiocese that was reeling from the spiritual and financial fallout of the sex abuse crisis.

“He sold all the prelates’ big residences and moved into the cathedral rectory” — a simple residence where he lived among his own priests “giving them an example of humility” and fraternity, she said.

An Italian woman, who asked her name not be used, said she wanted an American for pope.

Cardinal O’Malley “speaks from the heart.” While there are many good homilists out there, “you can feel his sincerity,” she said.

Pope Benedict: I am not abandoning the church

Pope greets crowd as he arrives to lead final Angelus at Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Benedict greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square as he arrives to lead his final Angelus at the Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — In one of his last public appearances, Pope Benedict XVI told an overflow crowd in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that his upcoming retirement does not mean he is abandoning the church, but that he will be serving it in a new way, through prayer and meditation.

At noon the pope appeared at his window in the Apostolic Palace to pray the Angelus, a papal Sunday ritual that will not be repeated until after the election of a new pope.

Despite the blustery weather, turnout was several times the usual for such occasions — easily over 150,000, with some estimates as high as a quarter of a million. The crowd filled the Square except where prevented by barricades, and spilled out into the Via della Conciliazione. Many groups held signs expressing gratitude and affection — “You are not alone,” one read — and national flags from countries as far away as Brazil.

“Prayer doesn’t mean isolating one’s self from the world and its contradictions,” the pope said, “prayer leads one back to the path, to action.

“Christian existence,” he said, “consists in a continuous climbing of the mountain for an encounter with God, in order to descend again bearing the love and strength derived from it, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with the same love of God.”

If the relevance to his Feb. 28 resignation was not already clear, the Pope made the connection explicit:

I feel that this word of God is directed in particular to me, in this moment of my life. The Lord calls me to “climb the mountain,” to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the church, on the contrary, if God asks this of me it is precisely so that I may continue to serve (the church) with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done so till now, but in a way more suited to my age and strength.

Speaking these words, Pope Benedict was interrupted twice by applause, and afterwards received an ovation 30 seconds long. He smiled broadly, thanked the crowd, and added: “Let us thank God for the bit of sun he has granted us.”

Deploring ‘gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander’

VATICAN CITY — Vatican officials released a pair of unusual statements Saturday condemning some press coverage of the papal transition.

A communiqué from the Secretariat of State called “deplorable” the “widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories” intended to exert “pressures on the election of the pope.”

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, delivered an editorial on Vatican Radio lamenting “pressures and considerations that are foreign to the spirit with which the church would like to live this period of waiting and preparation”:

There is no lack, in fact, of those who seek to profit from the moment of surprise and disorientation of the spiritually naive to sow confusion and to discredit the Church and its governance, making recourse to old tools, such as gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander, or exercising unacceptable pressures to condition the exercise of the voting duty on the part of one or another member of the College of Cardinals, who they consider to be objectionable for one reason or another.

Neither statement specified the news stories in question, but Father Lombardi’s editorial referred to distortions by “those who consider money, sex and power before all else and are used to reading diverse realities from these perspectives.”

Articles in the Italian press this week have portrayed a Vatican divided among political factions, with some officials supposedly subject to blackmail, and have suggested a link between bureaucratic infighting and Pope Benedict’s historic decision to step down Feb. 28.

The stories refer to a confidential internal report on the so-called “Vatileaks” of confidential documents last year, but there is no reason to believe that any journalist has had access to the contents of that report.

Whoever the sources of these stories may be, if they are seeking to discredit particular electors in the upcoming conclave, their targets are presumably among those cardinals who work in the Vatican itself.

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