Minutes after Pope Benedict XVI retired from office on Thursday evening, his former second in command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, received a scepter symbolizing his role as chamberlain with operational authority over the church during the interregnum.

Bertone is himself something of a symbol.

For many close observers of the church, the tall, lanky and polarizing prelate represents the dysfunction in the Roman hierarchy and the dangers of over-staffing the universal church’s government with too many Italians.

Benedict’s last year in office was overshadowed by leaks exposing Italian prelates engaging in turf wars and battles to influence the Italian government. Even as Benedict’s helicopter, emblazoned with the words “Repubblica Italiana,” lifted over the Vatican walls and spirited him away to a hidden life of retirement, an Italian magazine reported that in the midst of the leak scandal, Bertone had authorized wiretaps, that most Italian of pastimes, to root out potential moles among clergy in the Vatican. The Holy See confirmed that it had ordered the bugging of some phones.

The very notion that Italy is a contagion marks a historical departure. For 455 years before the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, an uninterrupted chain of Italian popes led the church. Now the scandals that haunted the German Benedict also loom over Italian candidates hoping to reclaim the papacy.

As cardinals begin meeting on Monday before entering the conclave from which the next pope will emerge, the 28 voting Italians will once again be the largest group from any one country. (The United States follows with 11 cardinals.) But the college of cardinals will also discuss the great challenges facing the church, and one of them is the crisis of management in the Vatican.

While there is near consensus that bad governance has hobbled the church, there is far less consensus about how to fix it. Would another Italian pope contaminated by Italy’s political culture exacerbate the problem? Or can only an Italian pope steeped in his country’s brand of political maneuvering mend the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church?

Several of the top candidates remain Italian, including Milan’s archbishop Angelo Scola and, a longer shot, Genoa’s archbishop Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops conference and Bertone’s nemesis. Both men lead a major diocese, unlike the Italians who work as top officials in the Curia.

“It’s improbable that there would be an Italian pope from the Curia,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert with the Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso.

Bertone, who led that bureaucracy, has become a shorthand for its Italian squabbling and flaws. While Benedict singled him out for appreciation in his farewell address, cardinals had requested his resignation even before the papal correspondence scandal known as VatiLeaks. In that departing headache for Benedict, potentially strategic leaks cast Bertone, 78, as the Vatican’s resident heavy who exiled a fledgling reformer and supported the public smearing of a Bagnasco ally as gay.

(“He’s going to go around knocking people on the head with that thing,” one Vatican reporter snickered as a video of Bertone taking hold of the scepter aired Friday in the Vatican briefing office. “He’s going to carry it always, even to bed,” said another.)

Mingling of church and state

A lot of the infighting boiled down to a competition to be the church’s point man in dealing with the Italian government. Whereas Bertone was eager to continue supporting then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, ­Bagnasco thought the billionaire’s bunga bunga ways were incompatible with the church and wanted to pull the rug.

From the moment Benedict XVI announced his retirement, speculation started to swirl over who will replace him as Pope. Gamblers around the world are even laying odds on who will be “called up” to the papacy. Producer Ben Connors gives us a look at a few of the prospects. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Berlusconi’s own eminence grise and honorary gentleman-in-waiting to the pope, Gianni Letta, had to promise church leaders that Berlusconi would not fling his arm over clerics in front of the camera if they agreed to meet with him, according to one Italian official who knows the Vatican well. When, during one meeting, Berlusconi leaned over to whisper something to Bagnasco, the cardinal leaned away, according to the official in attendance. But leaked letters also showed a Berlusconi government minister assuring Vatican Bank officials that the government would not force the church to pay real estate taxes.

“There are nuns who run a hotel downstairs and they don’t pay taxes!” Maurizio Turco, a leader of the Italian Radical Party and past organizer of “No Taliban, No Vatican” protests against the church, said on a recent visit to party headquarters. He believes the two states are unhealthily braided. “You can’t understand if the Vatican is like Italy or if Italy is like the Vatican.”

Not everyone sees such a problem with entanglement.

“Think of all the different dimensions of Italian life that are imbued with the church,” said Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Family. “There is the art, the culture, the traditions. Even amid the great trend towards secularization, the pope represents a center of unity in Italy.”

A few minutes after saying goodbye to Benedict on Thursday, Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno carried a black rosary that the pope had given him as a parting gift through St. Peter’s Square.

“He told me we’re close,” said Alemanno, who belongs to Berlusconi’s political party. He argued that the church didn’t intrude on Italian political life but instead, “there are those who want to force the pope and the Vatican to get involved with Italy. It’s more Italian politics that draws them in.”

For a long time, church support was necessary to govern in Italy. But in last week’s election, the church’s preferred candidate, Prime Minister Mario Monti, a faithful Catholic who received warm words in the Vatican’s official newspaper, was trounced. Instead, Berlusconi returned to influence, and a protest party led by a former comic turned rabble-rouser astonished Italy with a quarter of the vote. The result has paralyzed the Italian government and worried the Vatican.

‘It’s going to require Italians’

The potential for an antagonistic government is one of the reasons Vatican officials say Italians have always been necessary.

“As long as the place is rooted in Rome, it’s going to require Italians who can keep good relations with the government,” said one non-Italian official who is otherwise critical of the Italian influence on governance. “You fly into Rome, not the Vatican.”

Many people have by now never known an Italian pope. Two women from Verona who came to one of Benedict’s last appearances had never even really considered the possibility. While Elena Zorzini, 22, said an Italian pope might cause “a stronger link,” she added that regardless of the nationality, “we have him already.” Her friend, Anna Montresor, 30, said she preferred not to go backward. “I don’t want a European,” she said. “I’d rather have a Latin American. They have 200 million Catholics, and the pope should reflect that.”

The next pope may again not be Italian, but the Italian-speaking government he leads likely still will be. Per canon law, Bertone forfeited his post the moment that Benedict ceased to be pope. But some church watchers think that despite the scandals, an Italian, if not Bertone, would probably return to the new pontiff’s side.

In a recent interview, one confidant to many cardinals suggested that Bertone’s replacement could be Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, or Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, who, although born in Argentina, has Italian parents and has spent most of his life in Italy. That theory was echoed Saturday on La Stampa’s Vatican Insider Web site, which suggested that cardinals were considering a ticket of a Latin American pope and Italian second in command.

“It’s more important that the pope have clear ideas,” Andrea Tornielli, a prominent Vaticanista with La Stampa said. “If the pope isn’t Italian, the secretary of state should be.”