Jansing & Co. , 3/11/13, 8:00 PM ET

The next Pope: Who are the frontrunners?

George Weigel, Lindsey Joyce, and David Felton discuss the factions forming around specific candidates, the changing role of the next Pope, and what they are...

Pope-watch: The frontrunners begin to emerge

Updated

As the 115 voting cardinals begin the conclave to elect the next pope, some are beginning to coalesce behind distinct contenders, NBC News’ Vatican expert says.

“Coalitions have formed around particular candidates,” reported NBC News Vatican analyst George Weigel on Jansing & Co. ”There’s been a winnowing down of the field as these cardinals have considered what really are the issues facing the church today.”

Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, appears to be the favorite going into the conclave. Weigel sees the coalition forming behind Scola to include European and even some American cardinals who believe the pope should ascend through the ranks from professor to diocesan bishop to pope.

Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, who heads the main diocese in the world’s most Catholic country, is still reportedly a  frontrunner and an especially attractive candidate to the Vatican’s ‘old guard. Though his candidacy appears to have lost some steam, Weigel expects Cardinal Scherer to still get opening round votes, but does not see him getting to the necessary 77 ballots needed to be elected.

In a major shift, two American cardinals are now considered to have at least some shot at leading the Catholic church.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston seems to have the support of a significant Latin American contingent who are craving for more attention at the Vatican given that 42% of the world’s Catholics live in that region. O’Malley is also credited with cleaning up three diocese plagued with sex abuse scandals and restoring order.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has gained support from a small group of reformist Italian cardinals with ties to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the former Vicar of Rome. Dolan’s charismatic personality has helped propel him into serious contention for the papacy.

Weigel says the election of the next man to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics comes at a critical time.

“There’s an immense vitality to Catholicism around the world and the pope needs to encourage that,” said Weigel to msnbc host Chris Jansing. “The pope needs to be the public face of that so that we’re not simply seeing only crisis, scandal, mismanagement–we’re seeing people alive with the face of Jesus Christ.”

Explore:

Pope-watch: The frontrunners begin to emerge

Updated