Ever since Pope Benedict proclaimed that he was to become the Holy See You Later, speculation has been rampant as to who would replace him.

In addition to the standard Las Vegas odds (Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson is the current favorite at 5-2), now there are NCAA-style brackets and Fantasy Conclave. It's like fantasy baseball, except these Cardinals are not from St. Louis.

Surprisingly, the Fantasy Conclave contest (http://fantasyconclave.com) is not the brainchild of an iconoclast. It comes from "the eCatholic Evangelist," Michael Marchand. He built the contest as much around information as entertainment: All contestants get a daily dollop of knowledge, e-mails about popes and the process by which they are chosen.

"The educational component was integral to the project," Marchand said — by e-mail, of course. "Pope Benedict XVI's resignation presented the Church with a unique situation to teach the world about the beauty of the papacy and the process of election."

Sincee Catholic.com and other sponsors "wanted to do this in a way that was engaging and approachable," Marchand came up with the idea of the fantasy approach, in which participants choose the pope-to-be, the name he will choose and the day that the white puff of smoke signaling his ascension will appear.

The response within the church has not been uniformly positive.

"We have received some pushback from people thinking that we are being disrespectful or inappropriate, but a lot less than I was expecting," said Marchand, who founded CatholicStudentMinistry.com and does outreach, sales and marketing work for eCatholic.com. "Several of these people have changed their mind after understanding the mission of evangelization behind the project."

A convivial approach to an august process is something the Catholic Church needs to get used to in the Internet age, said conclave expert Massimo Faggioli, an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas.

"The conclave is being discussed far beyond the old boundaries of the mass media," said Faggioli, who made a presentation on the conclave at St. Paul's Church of the Assumption on Wednesday night. "In 1978 [when John Paul II became pope], you had only a few important reporters in Rome and some experts [in the United States]. Now it has been democratized."

For those who favor a more reverent approach, a German group called Jugend 2000 (Youth 2000) came up with "Adopt a Cardinal" (adoptacardinal.org), which lets the devout pray for a potential future pope. On Monday, more than 225,000 people had signed up to pray — not necessarily for "their guy," but for a cardinal assigned to them when they clicked to participate.

Slightly more catholic (in the lowercase sense) is "Pope Madness 2013," which combines a more contemporary March enterprise, the NCAA men's basketball tournament's wildly popular round-by-round format, with the conclave.

While there is no Holy See seeding, one offering (www.popebracket.com) does have regionals that actually live up to their name (South American, Italian, etc.) and reverent round names: "Sweet Sistine," "Ecumenical Eight," "Flagellent Four" and "Diocese Duo."

Thousands of voters also have chosen first-round winners at the Religion News Service's "Sweet Sistine" site (http://www.startribune.com/a2103).

The only contest with a prize, though, is Fantasy Conclave, which is offering up swag from sponsors, including a $100 restaurant.com gift card, Catholicism DVD series and study guides, autographed copies of Catholic books and a life-size cutout of Pope Benedict.

All of that will go to the person who picks the right cardinal, with these tiebreakers: the papal name he chooses (Joseph Ratzinger went with Benedict XVI), followed by closest to decision day and then earliest entry.

Frankly, I'd have gone with whether the new Pontifex Maximus sticks with Prada for his new red shoes or opts for Gucci, Tom Ford or Ferragamo.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643