Just when you thought the papal drama couldn't get any stranger, the first day of the conclave includes a police raid on the offices of one of the strongest candidates.
But even as preparations for the mass were being made, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan – and reportedly the hot favourite to be the next pope – suffered a blow.
Anti-mafia detectives swooped on homes, offices, clinics and hospitals in Lombardy, the region around Milan, and elsewhere. A statement said the dawn raids were part of an investigation into "corruption linked to tenders by, and supplies to, hospitals".
Healthcare in Lombardy is the principal responsibility of the regional administration, which for the past 18 years has been run by Roberto Formigoni, a childhood friend of Scola and the leading political representative of the Communion and Liberation fellowship. Until recently, Scola was seen as the conservative group's most distinguished ecclesiastical spokesman.
Now there's two words you don't want to see linked together at the commencement of a papal election: Cardinal and Mafia. The Vatican has enough skeletons in that particular closet... not to mention its crypt.
Scola began to "distance himself" -- note the political language -- from both his childhood friend and from Communion and Liberation about a year ago.
At least one crony of Formigoni was collared — putting Scola only one degree of separation from an alleged government corruption in the region of Scola’s archdiocese.
Scola and Formigoni have known each other for years and were early supporters of the Communion and Liberation movement, which first became popular in the 1970s as a way of encouraging the virtues of Catholicism in secular environments like the workplace.
But the movement’s proximity to the secular world has led to it often being associated with corruption, as The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
In what is being characterized as an "October surprise," this could compromise one of the best hopes for a speedy resolution to what is shaping up to be a very fractious conclave. Scola is rumored to have had the strongest hand going into the vote and this could weaken it.
It's unclear whether the brewing controversy will sway the direction of the Vatican, scandal-ridden as it is itself, in conclave. But with Scola previously rumored to have about 50 of the 77 votes needed to take the papacy secured, the news will likely make some papal speculators take one giant step back before the white smoke.