The College of Cardinals that Baltimore's William H. Keeler will be initiated into Saturday is perhaps the world's most enduring men's club.
It has evolved from a feuding cadre of medieval princes to a kind of modern-day board of directors for the nearly 1 billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
Its sphere of power -- matters of the spirit that can bear directly on geopolitics -- is so vast that even Wall Street analysts are quietly calling Catholic scholars for explanations of exactly how the college works and how the new faces may affect that process.
These are the men who choose the pope.
Locked in the Sistine Chapel upon the death or resignation of a pope, the 120 cardinals perform their most important -- if most rare -- duty.
Casting their secret votes into a golden chalice over the centuries has put the cardinals at sometimes deadly odds with the likes of Napoleon, Communist dictators and angry mobs of their own believers.
But the cardinals' more prosaic work -- advising the pope and administering everything from theology to church finances -- can be just the kind of high-charged stuff that sets those Wall Street analysts to calculating potential domino-effects on politics and world markets.
Their advice to the pope has caused global ripples over such issues as abortion and population control, divorce, and dialogue with Jews and Muslims.
Whether you are Catholic or not, the College of Cardinals "is extremely important to everyone in the world" by virtue of its influence in selecting and advising the pope, says Thomas J. Reese, a Georgetown University scholar of Catholicism.
"It's a different world today because of the leadership of the pope," he says, pointing to Pope John Paul II's support of his native Poland's rise out of communism.
Aside from electing the pope and the immediate increase in prestige, the duties and responsibilities of the red-capped coterie that surrounds the pope are not widely known -- even among Catholics themselves.
Appointed for life
In the Roman Catholic Church, the highest holy ordination is bishop. The pope himself is a bishop. And an archbishop or cardinal is a bishop given administrative duties. A cardinal is appointed for life and cannot lose the honorary title even if he is excommunicated.
Saturday's batch of 30 new cardinals will bring the number of cardinals worldwide to 167. But the total of those under 80 years of age and eligible to vote for the pope is 120.
Over the past 16 years, Pope John Paul has named 100 of those voting cardinals, a legacy of church leadership that will carry over into the next century. And given speculation about the pope's health, the college as it is constituted Saturday may very well be the one that picks the next pope.
Pope John Paul completely changed the dynamic of that selection process, say church scholars, who note that this group of cardinals may be more familiar with each other than ever before because of the pope's penchant for bringing them frequently to Rome at the same time.
Historically, the spread of the church around the world meant cardinals were far flung and unacquainted with each other. Even with modern transportation they were rarely in Rome at the same time.
"In the past, when cardinals came to Rome to elect a new pope, they really didn't know each other very well, and they were suddenly locked in this room and trying to decide who the next pope was and it was hard to do and they were very dependent on [third party] advice," says Dr. Reese.
While cardinals are forbidden from discussing successors before pope's death, today's cardinals have had "in the hallways and coffee bars, the informality of rubbing elbows with other cardinals and getting to know and talk mutually about their problems," says Michael Novak, a religion and public policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Though Pope John Paul's cardinals have been largely characterized as theologically conservative -- on such things as ordination of women, abortion and contraception -- his choices have had other more obviously practical considerations, says Dr. Reese.
In the United States, for example, cardinals have been chosen because of their talents in financial management and the Vatican's need to get its deficit-ridden budget in order. In places where the state is persecuting the church, strong cardinals who can withstand the pressures of an authoritarian government are needed, he says.
Each cardinal is assigned as a sort of board director to one or more governing agencies of the church. While there is a hierarchy within the College of Cardinals, most church scholars say it has not historically been important in the selection of modern popes, who generally haven't been well-known before election.
Obvious points of power lie in posts of day-to-day operations such as: the dean of the College of Cardinals, who controls all the appointments of bishops; the cardinal secretary of state, who is like a prime minister for the Vatican and is considered likely to run the church in the event the pope is sick; the camerlengo -- or chamberlain -- who takes charge of property, finances and elections during the interregnum between a pope's death and the election of a new one.
The College of Cardinals was created in the 12th century as a way of formalizing papal succession, which until that time had been a struggle between monarchies and mobs.
To keep the cardinal electors free from outside interference, and to minimize the fistfights, poisonings and briberies involved in many of the early papal elections, the electoral conclaves were locked up by the chamberlain.
The voting process -- or scrutiny -- begins 15 days after a pope's death. It takes two-thirds of the 120 voting cardinals, plus one, to elect a pope. An elaborate ritual for counting and disposing of the ballots allows for just four rounds of balloting a day.
The selection of the next pope -- with security sweeps for electronic bugs in the Sistine Chapel and global influence at stake -- is bound to be easier than some past elections.
In the 13th century, cardinals haggled for 3 1/2 years in secrecy before they were put on a bread-and-water diet to force the election of Gregory X.
The 30 new cardinals named by Pope John Paul II:
Gilberto Agustoni, a Vatican official
Archbishop Ricardo Maria Carles Gordo of Barcelona, Spain
The Rev. Yves Congar of France
L Archbishop Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja of Semarang, Indonesia
Bernardino Echeverria Ruiz, archbishop emeritus of Guayaquil, Ecuador
Archbishop Pierre Eyt of Bordeaux, France
Vincenzo Fagiolo, an Italian prelate and chairman of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts
Carlo Furno, the papal nuncio to Italy
The Rev. Alois Grillmeier of Germany
Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore
The Rev. Mikel Koliqi of Shkoder, Albania
Archbishop Adam Maida of Detroit
Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega Y Alamino of Havana, Cuba
Archbishop Carlos Oviedo Cavada of Santiago, Chile
Luigi Poggi, an Italian Vatican official
Archbishop Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo
Archbishop Armand Gaetan Razafindratandra of Antananarivo, Madagascar
Archbishop Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara, Mexico
Archbishop Jan Schotte of Belgium
Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, Lebanese Maronite leader
Archbishop Peter Seiichi Shirayanagi of Tokyo
L Archbishop Adolfo Antonio Suarez Rivera of Monterrey, Mexico
Archbishop Kazimierz Swiatek of Minsk, Belarus
Ersilio Tonini, archbishop emeritus of Ravenna, Italy
Archbishop Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal
Archbishop Miloslav Vlk of Prague, the Czech Republic
Archbishop Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung of Hanoi, Vietnam
Archbishop Augusto Vargas Alzamora of Lima, Peru
Archbishop Emmanuel Wamala of Kampala, Uganda
Archbishop Thomas Winning of Glasgow, Scotland