The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world, and with more than one billion members worldwide, it is the largest Christian church. Its history spans almost 2,000 years and is rooted in the Church's Canon of Scripture and Tradition. At the head of the church is the Pope, who Catholics believe is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. The Pope, according to the religion's doctrine, can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church practises closed communion and only baptised members of the church are permitted to receive the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Papal election sparks frenzy of betting and adopt-a-cardinal
Agence France-Presse in Rome
As the Catholic Church prepares to elect a pope, some irreverent souls are betting on the outcome while more religious-minded ones are "adopting" individual cardinals on a website to pray that they make the right choice.
Italian cardinal Angelo Scola is the favourite with the odds running at 11-to-four for bookmaker William Hill or three-to-one for Paddy Power, meaning a bet on the 61-year-old would not win much cash.
The second-ranked cardinal for Saint Peter's throne, according to the online comparative betting website oddschecker.com is 64-year-old Peter Turkson, of Ghana, who if elected would be the first black pontiff.
Turkson is seven-to-two by William Hill and Paddy Power.
Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Betting Research Unit at Nottingham Business School in Britain, said this papal election could be one of the biggest non-sporting events in betting history.
"The betting odds are the very best guide we have to the outcome," Vaughan Williams said, adding that bets on the elderly cardinals could total more than £10 million (HK$116.4 million).
Many of the cardinals favoured by the bets match the selection made by Vatican experts, although seasoned observers warn the outcome of conclaves is unpredictable as was the case in Karol Wojtyla's election in 1978 to become pope John Paul II.
No money is involved in another playful take on the conclave - a board game entitled "Vatican: Unlock the Secrets of How Men Become Pope", designed by a US religion professor that rates papal wannabes according to strict criteria.
Cardinals score points for opposing gay marriage and lose points if they oppose papal teachings. A cardinal who manages to convert a group of Muslim extremists to Catholicism after being kidnapped gets bonus points.
But the genuine faithful may prefer to sign up at adoptacardinal.org which encourages Catholics to pray for individual elector cardinals who are randomly chosen by the website and has proven hugely popular.
More than 350,000 people have chosen to adopt a cardinal so far and the website has an official blessing after the cardinals themselves discussed it at one of their pre-conclave meetings.
"The cardinals need to be prayed for," said Ulli Heckl, a 37-year-old German who is one of the creators of the website and a member of Youth 2000, an international Catholic movement.