Who the Next Pope Will Be Is Up for Speculation

Papal bettors are placing their trust in God and gut. A Nigerian cardinal gets the best odds to be the new pontiff, one gambling service says.

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times

April 13, 2005

CASTELNUOVO DI PORTO, Italy — A book of numbers at his side, a pendulum in his pocket and his wife upstairs plotting astrological charts, Fabrizio Shamir predicts that the next pope will come from South America.

"I held the pendulum over a map for 30 minutes and it drifted south," said Shamir, known in Italian gossip pages as a numerologist skilled at playing the lottery using the birthdays of saints. "As a man, I think the pope should come from Asia because of all its poverty. But as a professional, my numbers and instincts tell me South America."

Cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel next week and ask God to guide them in selecting the Roman Catholic Church's 265th pope. In less religiously devout realms, oddsmakers, numerologists and those with supernatural proclivities are following their stars, their hunches and their bookies to predict which name will be announced when white smoke curls from the chapel's chimney.

Rome has been the crosscurrent of the spiritual and the commercial for centuries. The capital of an empire inspired by pagan mythology, the city went through blood, martyrs and fire before the liturgy of Christ was imprinted upon its architecture and soul. The selection of a new pope is a time of reverential anticipation for the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, but for others it is an ecclesiastical parlor game in which the pages of the Bible mean less than the whisper and wink of a bookmaker.

"The response for papal bets has been brisk, shall we say," said Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, a British-based international gambling service. "We've done papal betting before so we've got a reputation for this and there's certainly a demand for it."

The favorite for the new pontiff, according to William Hill, is Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze with 9-4 odds. The agency calculates the Archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi, with 7-2 odds and Honduran Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga at 6 to 1. More distant prospects include German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at 9 to 1 and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes at 10 to 1. The dark horse, according to other betting firms, is Cardinal George Pell of Australia. His odds of becoming a successor to St. Peter are 139 to 1.

"The new pope is a matter of legitimate speculation," Sharpe said. "One hundred or so people are going to make a decision that will affect the world. It's not something you might call a fun bet, like the one we had last weekend over what the color might be of Camilla's dress" in her wedding to Prince Charles.

Some Roman bookmakers, however, grimace at the notion of putting money on a prospective pope. Sitting in an off-track betting parlor, scattered with chits and the sounds of televised horse races from around the world, one oddsmaker was asked if any of her colleagues had placed a Vatican bet: "I certainly hope not. That would be in bad taste."

Taste is relative in a nation imbued with superstition as well as spirituality. Many Italians kneel in confessionals and keep the commandments. But they also seek the advice of seers, tarot card readers and astrologers to ensure their souls and fortunes are protected and enhanced in all unseen dimensions. In books known as the Smorfia, dating back generations, dreams and visions are assigned numbers that can be played in games of chance or to foretell good and not so good news.

The big lottery numbers in Italy these days are 21 and 37: On the international clock they correspond to 9:37 p.m., the time John Paul II died.

"Lotto playing is up 70% since the pope's death," said Shamir, who advises his clients on what numbers to pick. "At the moment the pope has taken over the calculations of the game. Everyone is betting his numbers. Dates involving Prince Charles and Camilla don't come close, although since their wedding, Princess Diana's numbers are coming back into the picture.

"People play on tragedy. The day after Sept. 11, 2001, people called and told me they were sorry about what happened, but could I tell them what numbers from the tragedy they might play."

Wearing a black jacket and a black tie, Shamir strolled through Castelnuovo di Porto, a medieval hill town a dozen miles north of Rome. Stray cats darted and a breeze blew through the olive trees below.

Shamir opened his door and stepped into the aura of a gambler's grotto. His wife, Alice, was poring over astrological charts. Lottery numbers flitted across a television screen and two cellphones lay on a table with pages of diet tips based on numerology.

Shamir, a polished and impassioned man, does not pander to superstition. He is a strictly by-the-numbers guy. Many of his figures are important dates culled from the lives of saints. They are factored into a string of geographical and familial numbers to form, he hopes, a winning lottery ticket. Saints and the lottery, said Shamir, a columnist for Italy's VIP gossip magazine, are the perfect marriage for a country that boasts Michelangelo's David and the Pieta along with statues of heretics.

"Betting on saints is like merging the religious with the material," he said. "That's why there's a lot of interest in Pope John Paul II. They hope the pope will spiritually intercede to help them win the lottery."

John Paul was loved by many, but there is a growing fascination around the future pope.

"Players are waiting for April 18 when the conclave begins," Shamir said. "They're hoping the cardinals elect a pope on that Monday or Tuesday so they can play the new pope's numbers in next Wednesday's Lotto."

If numbers elude him, which appears to be seldom, Shamir dips into his pocket for a gold-chained pendulum. Days before John Paul's selection in 1978 as the first Polish pope, Shamir's pendulum swayed toward Eastern Europe and the Palermo lottery wheel stopped at 30. Any numerologist worth his weight in equations would know that 30 signifies something may be brewing in Warsaw or thereabouts.

Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.