Reader’s Guide – Day 10


The number 77 is a bella figura, an American buzz, and the smoke next time

The cardinals will celebrate a Mass for the election of a Roman pontiff on Tuesday morning, March 12, in St. Peter’s Basilica and that afternoon will begin the conclave, says a report Friday from Vatican Radio. Needed for election are 77 votes, said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican press secretary, speaking before the conclave date had been chosen. See the video report by the TV news agency Rome Reports.


This weekend, the cardinals will meet in General Congregation again on Saturday morning and on Sunday many are expected to visit their Roman churches and celebrate Mass.

The conclave will start earlier than is usual after the death of a pope, but Benedict XVI allowed for the possibility when he altered the rules after announcing he would resign. The probable result is a selection well in advance of Easter solemnities.

Expectations are that many cardinals, particularly the Italians and curial officials, would prefer a quick choice, perhaps as quick as Benedict’s in the first 24 hours of the 2005 conclave. But there is still a sense of mourning over Benedict’s decision to step down, and a wish by some that the cardinals would stalemate or actively choose not to elect a successor.  See Robert Moynihan’s latest letter from Rome:

“And I think, what if the cardinals were to decide that, while Benedict lives, they will not vote? What if they were to decide that, while Benedict yet lives, he remains the Holy Father? What if they were to propose that Benedict appoint an ‘Apostolic Vicar’ to run the daily affairs of the Vatican and the central government of the Church, while yet remaining ‘Peter’?

“Am I serious? Look, I am just a writer, sitting in a room in Rome, well after midnight, writing a letter about a situation, and a man, and a time, of importance to me. I have no standing to propose anything. But I am a writer, and a writer writes what he thinks, and what he feels. And I think and feel that the theological implications of Benedict’s resignation, and of the election of a new Pope while he yet lives, and of carrying forward an election under the glaring floodlights of the media, which have a different agenda than the Church’s agenda, all cry out for further reflection, and clarification.”

Not everyone is so discomfited by the presence of all these reporters. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, one of those Americans given to press conferences, wrote in his blog Friday that “the reporters from home have been mostly amazingly patient, attentive, and thoughtfully curious.”

Another well-qualified observer also mentioned, but dismissed the possibility of an inconclusive conclave. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote Friday: “Nobody seriously believes the conclave will end without a pope, like the Italian elections failed to produce a government, but there is concern that no single figure has emerged as the obvious answer to the question cardinals are asking: Who can fix the system, and still do all the other things we want the pope to do?”

In the quiet period the cardinals have imposed on themselves, even church journalists have been reduced to interviewing other journalists. See Catholic TV’s interview with local TV reporter Lisa Hughes of WBZ-TV.

On Friday morning, the General Congregation heard the reasons for the absence of two electors, one for reasons of health, the other, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, for reasons of personal sexual misconduct. It was “was a reminder of the need to choose a pope who is untainted by improprieties,” write Daniel J. Wakin and Alan Cowell in The New York Times. They quote Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet: “They’re very concerned about getting somebody clean. The O’Brien scandal is right in their faces.”

The focus is on a search for communicator and good governance, an implicit criticism of Benedict, and a longing for the easy public presence of John Paul II, write Laurie Goodstein and Daniel J. Wakin  in The New York Times. And it would be good to have someone a little younger, too.  Many cardinals have some of these attributes, but in the analysis, some cardinals have got around to mentioning Americans, particularly Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Goodstein and Wakin quote the respected Italian journalist Marco Politi: “For the first time Americans are even being considered — that’s the news.”

Yes, it seems to be real, this American buzz. See Sandro Magister’s English-language blog for Expresso Online: “In Europe and in North America, the regions of most ancient but declining Christianity, there does not exist today a Church more vital and resurgent than that of the United States. And also more free and critical with respect to worldly powers. The taboo has vanished of an American Catholic Church that identifies itself with the primary global superpower and therefore can never produce a pope.

“On the contrary, what is astonishing about this conclave is that the United States offers not one, but even two true "papabili." Because in addition to Dolan there is the archbishop of Boston, Sean Patrick O'Malley, 69, with the robe and beard of the worthy Capuchin friar. His belonging to the humble order of St. Francis is not an obstacle to the papacy, nor is it without illustrious precedents, because the great Julius II, the pope of Michelangelo and Raphael, was also a Franciscan.”

Jason Horowitz of The Washington Post assessed the indirect politicking this way: “Before they begin a Vatican lockdown, they will spend these last days hammering out alliances, gravitating toward candidates or working to peel off supporters from other papal contenders.”

Besides all the speculation about the choices facing them, the cardinals are about to enter an extended liturgy, which is the actual form of the conclave. There is a multiplicity of prayers and hymns for each step of the event; see the Catholic News Service story on the Ordo Rituum Conclavis. And among the final preparations of the conclave hall, the Sistine Chapel itself, watch the new stoves being installed, which will produce the always-confusing white or black smoke to signal the results of each ballot; Catholic News Service has the video on YouTube.

This is faith, this is history, this is solemn splendor, and it is apparently going to be a pretty good horse race.

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David Smith
5 years 10 months ago
Alas, we Americans seem to be lightweights, almost by nature. Though it would be gratifying to see O'Malley elected, there are probably far better minds - heavyweights - elsewhere.


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