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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 15:34 GMT
Betting on the next Pope
John Paul II is now a frail 82, and suffers from Parkinson's disease.
Although his papacy is assumed to be nearing its end, the Catholic Church frowns on speculation about his successor.
Merely to discuss the issue can cause offence.
Yet a leading Irish bookmaker, Paddy Power, is apparently willing to risk a bolt of lightning from the heavens.
In addition to a wide range of sports betting, the company offers odds on the Miss World contest and the chances of snow at Christmas.
It recently caused a stir by including John Paul II in a "Dole Derby" of people about to lose their jobs.
Now, venturing further into the religious world, the company's website lists 15 clerics and their odds of becoming the next Pope.
Most are serious contenders for the papacy, but the inclusion of Father Dougal McGuire of Craggy Island may come as a surprise to the Vatican.
Television viewers will recognise him as the scatterbrained young priest in the Father Ted sitcom. He is the outsider at 1,000-1.
"People in Ireland are irreverent and we are just having a little fun," said Paddy Power, the company's operating executive.
"There has been plenty of interest all right, but no reaction from the Church. I don't think they would lower themselves by commenting on a bookmaker.
"I suppose we will find out on Judgment Day!"
The bookmaker sought the advice of religious affairs correspondents in drawing up its list of runners for the papal stakes.
"It is an unusual market, and we don't have a religious expert here," said Mr Power.
The current favourite, with odds of 4-1, is Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, who has frequently been tipped for the papacy.
Like just about every other cardinal who is regarded as "papabile" - the Italian word for a possible Pope - he refuses to discuss his chances.
Next on the list are two Italians. Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna are both quoted at 6-1.
Five of the likely contenders are from Latin America, a reflection of the increasing power of this part of the Catholic world.
In the short time the book has been open, Paddy Power has accepted "a good few" bets, with stakes of up to £200 (300 euros).
But who is betting on the papacy? The bookmaker cannot be sure, but some of the smart money may be coming from the clergy.
Who else would risk a flutter on one of the world's most unpredictable elections?
"There is nothing wrong in priests having a bet, and you often see them at the races," said Mr Power.
"They are probably more knowledgeable than we are about this, so I think some of them will have had a wager, and will be praying for the right result."
Needless to say, none of the cardinals who feature in the betting would ever acknowledge that they have a chance of becoming Pope.
Campaigning for the papacy is strictly forbidden, and most cardinals would be embarrassed even to be mentioned as a papal runner.
The Vatican stresses that the outcome of papal elections is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Others may see it as a race, but it is one that will take place well away from the public gaze.
The process of electing the next Pope will begin shortly after the death of John Paul II.
The most senior members of the Catholic hierarchy will gather together in a secret meeting called a conclave.
All cardinals under the age of 80 are entitled to take part in the voting. Currently there are 114, and one of them will almost certainly emerge as the next Pope.
Because the voters are locked inside the Vatican, isolated from the outside world, the first sign that a Pope has been chosen will be white smoke rising above the Sistine Chapel.
The cardinals are forbidden to communicate with the outside world, which means they will be banned from using mobile phones.
This emphasis on secrecy means it would be difficult for anyone on the outside to pull off a betting coup.
"If there are any rumours, the money will start to flood in, so I am sure we would know," said Mr Power.
In the event of a candidate dying before the election, horse racing's Rule 4 will apply and they will be treated as a non-runner.
Paddy Power says the book will remain open until the papal election - whenever that is. The odds will be adjusted as the money comes in.
However, the person with the most to lose is probably the unfortunate cardinal tipped to be Pope.
This is one election where being regarded as the favourite is a serious handicap.
There is an old Vatican saying: "He who goes into the conclave a Pope, comes out a cardinal."
That may please those cardinals who have no desire to take on such a daunting job.
But for some, it could mean the end of an unspoken ambition.
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