Adopt a cardinal or place your bets for papal conclave

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 by far the favourite with the odds running at just 11-to-four for bookmaker William Hill or three-to-one for Paddy Power, meaning that a safe bet on the 61-year-old would not bring in 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 in history.

Turkson is given seven to two by both 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 end up being one of the biggest money non-sporting events in betting history.

"The betting odds are the very best guide we have to the outcome," Vaughan Williams said, adding that he estimated bets on the elderly cardinals could total more than 10 million pounds ($15 million, 11.5 million euros).

Many of the cardinals favoured by the bets match the selection made by Vatican experts, although seasoned observers warn the outcome of conclaves is notoriously unpredictable as was the case in Karol Wojtyla's election in 1978 to become pope John Paul II.

Bookmakers however rank Italian cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at number three -- an improbable choice according to experts who say his role as Secretary of State under Benedict XVI proved hugely divisive in the Church.

Bertone, as the "chamberlain cardinal", is temporarily in charge of running the day-to-day affairs of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide before a new pontiff is elected.

Canada's Marc Ouellet, seen by some Vatican experts as one of the favourites, is only ranked number four by the betting companies and another strong possible, Brazil's Odilo Scherer, gets the number five spot.

Turkson had been the favourite to be the next leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics for several bookmakers until he gave an interview to US network CNN in which he appeared to link paedophilia and homosexuality.

The Catholic Church does not forbid gambling but frowns on over-eager betters, with the Catechism warning: "The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter."

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 which 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 this week.

"The cardinals need to be prayed for," said Ulli Heckl, a 37-year-old from southern Germany who is one of the creators of the website and a member of Youth 2000, an international Catholic movement that is backing the site.

Heckl said there had been huge interest from parishes, religious congregations and even old people's homes where many have been concentrating their prayers on a particular cardinal to help him make the right choice.

A total of 115 "cardinal electors" have been called to gather in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel for this historic moment in the life of the Catholic Church after Benedict XVI became the first pontiff to resign since the Middle Ages.

Those nostalgic for the German pope's eight-year pontificate might choose to drown their sorrows or cheer in his successor with a cool glass of "Papst Bier" ("Pope Beer") from the homeland of the now "pope emeritus" -- Bavaria.

Cardinal Angelo Scola celebrates a mass on February 12, 2013 in Milan's Duomo cathedral. 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.

Ghanaian cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson arrives for an afternoon meeting on March 8, 2013 at the Vatican. 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 in history.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone passes Pope Benedict XVI during the mass for Ash Wednesday on February 13, 2013 at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Bookmakers rank Bertone at number three contender for new pope -- an improbable choice according to experts who say his role as Secretary of State under Benedict XVI proved hugely divisive in the Church.

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