By Pat Ciarrocchi

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – We learned Friday that the Conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI begins on Tuesday, March 12th.

One hundred – fifteen Cardinal electors will meet on Tuesday afternoon in the Sistine Chapel, where the first ballots will be cast and thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square will see smoke.

Most likely that smoke will be black, meaning the Cardinals have not reached a two-thirds majority on any one candidate.

In light of the anticipated “Divine Intervention,” most shy away from calling the election a race for the Papacy.

But in betting circles, “divinely inspired dignity” is being thrown out the stained glass windows. Bookies and bettors are plunking down cash and naming Cardinals, countries, ages and adopted Papal names – all for the chance to win big on the winner of the Pope’s race.

New York Times writer, Micah Cohen, in a March 4th piece quoted an Irish journalist in 2005 as saying “if the smart money is telling it right, the next pope will be one of the following three men” – Joseph Ratzinger, Carlo Martini or Jen-Marie Lustiger. The next day Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

Oddsmakers are calculating papal possibilities. Right now, four of the top six contenders are from Italy, including Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, who leads the list in betting, 3 to 1.

Next is Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at 3.5 to 1. While the number of Catholics in Europe has shrunk to 24 percent since 1910, the Church in Africa is growing quickly, along with Asia and Latin America.

In the top 25, two Americans float into view. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston ranks at #13, while New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan ranks at #16 with a three percent chance of being elected. There are lots of historic arguments that the Cardinals will never elect a U.S. Pope because of the United States’ position as a geo-political superpower. It doesn’t seem polite.

Age is also a factor in betting and most likely in the Cardinal’s selection. Oddsmakers have the average age of the top 10 at 68 – which seems just about right.

So — if not the U.S., North America could have another option – Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec and now the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops.

Ouellet is 68. What would his election mean? The Church is global – his work with selecting bishops would give him the ability to shape the Church. And he’s qualified – some say most qualified – speaking English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and German fluently. He also has done missionary work in South America. That means “evangelization” credibility.

We will see. If you were betting, do you have a favorite?

We’ll all know more by the end of next week – I bet – when we hear the words, Habemus Papam – “We have a Pope!”