Special Report

We Have a Conclave

A pilgrim-journalist reports from Rome.

By 3.12.13

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“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.

That surfaces the third point. Does someone from North America stand a legitimate chance at election? If the College of Cardinals chooses a North American, that man must be able to collect votes from the Europeans and the Latin Americans, since two-thirds of the college’s vote is needed to secure election. The absence of a clear front-runner suggests that could still be accomplished. An individual able to respond to the challenges and concerns of both the global north and the global south might be able to attract votes from the two largest bodies in the college.

Inside the Sala Stampa and across St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican’s Media Center, one floor below where the cardinals have been meeting for their general congregations, there is a lot of speculation about who might fit that bill. Two names continue to circulate: Dolan and Ouellet. 

While it is best to avoid making predictions about the next pope, since such predictions almost never pan out, it is worth noting that Blessed Pope John Paul II often called New York the "capital of the world." With its numerous vibrant ethnic communities, it sits at the crossroads of the globe.

The current archbishop of New York is Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, aged 63. He has served as the President of Catholic Relief Services, American Catholicism’s charitable arm to the Church in need in the developing world. While that might make him an appealing candidate to cardinals from the global south, the fact that he does not speak Spanish could make him an unattractive choice. To boot, it is well known that Dolan’s Italian is mediocre at best. With 28 cardinals, the Italians constitute the largest bloc within the European college.

In his favor, Dolan is gregarious and well-liked. He is a member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Councils of Social Communication and the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Back home in the states, he is the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He has a strong background in ecclesial management and he is known for his pastoral zeal. Both of those things are important to the Church at this hour.

At 68, Cardinal Marc Ouellet is the Archbishop Emeritus of Quebec, the Prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, and the President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. He is an accomplished and well-respected ecclesiastic. Under Pope Benedict, he served as a member of the second section of the Secretariat of State, the Congregations for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Catholic Education, Clergy, the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Oriental Churches, the Councils of Culture, Promotion of the New Evangelization, and Legislative Texts, and the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses.

Like Dolan, Ouellet is well-liked. But, he also brings intellectual accomplishment. He is a serious theologian in camp with Ratzinger. Yet some think he is too close to the Roman Curia at a time when it needs to be reformed. It is often claimed that the Church does not need another theologian-pope, but a pastor capable of reforming the Curia from the outside.

Regardless of the real chances of either Dolan or Ouellet being elected pope, let alone other North Americans like Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, there remains a lot of speculation about the age of the best candidate.

That’s the fourth point to bear in mind. It is rumored that the cardinals will avoid the election of an older pope. Time will tell. But, there are just six cardinals aged 60 or under. Europe has four of them. And, Asia/Oceania has the other two. Among them are Péter Erdö (Hungarian, 60), Wim Eijk (Dutch, 59), Reinhard Marx (German, 59), Rainer Maria Woelki (German, 56), Luis Antonio Tagle (Filipino, 55), and Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal (Indian, 53). Most of the cardinals are older than 70. Just 52 of the 115 cardinals are under 70. Europe has 26 of them, North America has seven, Latin America has nine, Africa has five and Asia/Oceania has the remaining five.

The cardinals could elect someone who sits in between the two major age groups – someone, that is, who is neither too old nor too fresh. On the one hand, Dolan could be considered too unseasoned. He has been a cardinal since 2012 and archbishop of New York since 2009.

But, he has the backing of Cardinals Rigali, aged 77, and Harvey, aged 63. Cardinal Harvey served under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as Prefect of the Papal Household. And Cardinal Rigali served as the President of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Rome’s all important school for the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. Both men speak perfect Italian and command the respect of the Italian cardinals. Those connections might give Dolan a certain amount of gravitas in important quarters.

An interesting vignette: Heading into the Pope Paul VI Hall for one of the General Congregations, Rigali was spotted introducing Dolan to an important Italian cardinal. In Rome, the capital of Europe’s largest voting bloc, and among cardinals old enough to remember a statelier church, that’s how deals are made. Perhaps the exchange was a subtle manifestation of Romanità (or, Roman diplomatic polish). Time will tell.

But for now, one thing remains certain: At this hour, the Catholic Church finds herself in the midst of a crisis. Europe has forsaken its Christian heritage; the United States continues to become more and more post-Christian, post-modern, and secular; international financial crises continue to destabilize global markets and economies; and an Arab Spring situates global politics on shifting sands. Global Catholicism needs a shepherd who can confront challenges in both the global north and the global south. The Church needs another mediator pope.

In 1978, following the death of Pope John Paul I, the cardinals discerned God was calling them to make a bold decision and to take on the challenges of Communism in Eastern Europe. The cardinals discerned the Church needed someone who could mediate between Western and Eastern Europe. John Paul II was their man. After his surprising election, he presented himself to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square as a man “from a faraway country.”

This afternoon, I talked with a journalist from New York who was in that square when John Paul II was elected. We spoke just outside St. Peter’s Basilica, strolling beneath the central loggia where the next pope will make his first appearance. My friend told me that the atmosphere in Rome this week is not altogether different from the one that surrounded the square back in 1978.

Perhaps, that’s telling. Maybe we’ll soon have another mediator pope—a man “from a faraway country.”

Image courtesy Dfmalan.

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About the Author

John Paul Shimek is a pilgrim-journalist in Rome where he'll be reporting on the Conclave all this month. He's also written for Catholic World Report and CatholicVote.org, and is working towards an ecclesiastical doctoral degree in Sacred Theology at the Catholic University of America.