A pilgrim-journalist reports from Rome.
“Habemus conclave.” We have a conclave. It is official and it commences on March 12. That news came across the wire late last week here in Rome. As a pilgrim-journalist covering the conclave, the election and installation of the new pope, and the new pope’s first Holy Week and Easter Sunday, I received the news first hand from the Vatican’s Press Office, the Sala Stampa.
Here’s what we know: Around 7:00 am Rome time, the cardinals will start settling into their rooms in the Domus Sancta Marthae inside the Vatican. Then, at 10:00 am, they will celebrate the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff (or Missa Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice) inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
Once Mass concludes, the cardinal electors will meet at the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican Palace. After some reflection there, the papal electors will process to the Sistine Chapel behind a crucifix, chanting the litaniae sanctorum. Inside the Sistina, beneath the tremendous frescoes of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, the cardinals will take the oath of silence and the first ballot will be administered and counted. Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis (“On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff”), obligates the cardinals to take a ballot that first afternoon. Their arresting surroundings will add to the seriousness of their momentous task.
Regarding the tremendous and tremulous space in which the cardinals will soon elect the 266th successor to St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, Pope John Paul II once wrote:
It is here, at the feet of this marvelous Sistine profusion of color that the Cardinals gather – a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom. They come right here.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision … The Sistine painting will then speak with the Word of the Lord: Tu es Petrus – as Simon, the son of Jonah, heard. “To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom.”
Those to whom the care of the legacy of the keys has been entrusted gather here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the Sistine’s colors, by the vision left to us by Michelangelo … Michelangelo’s vision must then speak to them.
It is necessary that during the Conclave, Michelangelo teach them – Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius [Everything is disclosed and revealed before his eyes]. You who see all – point to him! He will point him out.
We have arrived at that moment. Soon the cardinals will seek to discern which one of them is being pointed out for election. But, amidst the sacred, here are four points to keep us grounded as the countdown to the papal election begins.
First, elections are often contested among front-runners. The buzz inside the Sala Stampa and at the Media Center at the Pope Paul VI Hall is that there is no single front-runner. That continues to be the case after several sessions of meetings among the cardinals themselves. Of course, the cardinals have taken oaths of silence, so inside the bubble, as it were, there could be a clear front-runner. But among most seasoned Vatican-watchers, the conjecture is that there isn’t one.
On the one hand, that’s encouraging. It means that the Catholic Church is blessed with numerous rock-solid candidates. Good! But recall: Going into the 2005 conclave, Vatican watchers anticipated Ratzinger’s ascendancy. We knew the white smoke signaled his election. This time around? There are no clear Ratzingers. Two weeks ago, I ran a column in the Milwaukee Catholic Herald on a favorite contender of mine, Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi. I like him, but most bets are being made on others.
Second, here in Rome law is king. Canon law administers most aspects of the Church’s life, including conclaves. As the chief legislator of the universal Church, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI released two documents of interest to conclave watchers. First, on June 11, 2007, the pope promulgated an Apostolic Letter, issued motu proprio (that is, on his own accord), entitled in Latin “De Aliquibus Mutationibus in Normis De Electione Romani Pontificis” (English: “On Some Changes to the Norms for the Election of the Roman Pontiff”). Just a few weeks before he resigned the papal office, he issued another Apostolic Letter, also a motu proprio, entitled in Latin “Normas Nonnullas.” In English, it was “On Certain Modifications to the Norms Governing the Election of the Roman Pontiff.”
As far as the conclave is concerned, these documents are crucial for an all-important reason. One re-instated, and the second affirmed, the traditional constraint that the cardinal elected to the Chair of St. Peter must gather two-thirds of the college’s vote. Remember that 115 cardinals will attend the conclave. So, Benedict’s successor must rake in 77 votes. Combining the absence of front-runners with the rule about the two-thirds vote could suggest a longer conclave. The last conclave lasted some 48 hours. This one could take a little bit longer. It could take some time to establish the two-thirds backing, if that hasn’t been accomplished during the period of the general congregations. Regardless, the new legal demand begs a question: Where will the successful cardinal-candidate find the votes required for election?
To answer that question, it is important to think in terms of numbers and geographical locations.
The College of Cardinals includes men from Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, and Asia/Oceania. Among the 115 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave, Europe has 60, North America has 14, Latin America has 19, Africa has 11, and Asia/Oceania has the remaining 11. That means that the two largest groups of cardinals are the Europeans and the Latin Americans. The North Americans show up in third place.
The absence of a front-runner suggests that the two largest blocs, the Europeans and the Latin Americans, have not decided on specific candidates. That could suggest that it remains possible for someone from one of the smaller blocs to be elected. Back home in the states, people want to know whether a North American could become pope.
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