People keep asking me: Why haven’t the cardinals set a start date for the conclave? The formal, procedural reason is that a few cardinals still aren’t in Rome. The more important reason is that an exact start date is not the top priority for cardinals gathered. As I understand it, many have return tickets that will get them back in time for Palm Sunday, so there is a general timeline, and easing toward it is part of what they’re doing now.
On his Sirius XM Catholic Channel radio show yesterday, Cardinal Dolan addressed the issue:
I’m told 60 percent of the Cardinals are new. This is our first one. I’m among that majority so I don’t know how it works but people don’t seem to be in a hurry. And I’ve asked some of the old timers and they said, “Well, pretty soon we’ll say, ‘Hey, this is going pretty well. We’re getting to know each other well. There have been most illuminating conversations. Let’s set a time for the conclave.” See, I thought that would be one of the first things on the agenda. I obviously misspoke. But the guys that have been in it before shrug and say, “No, it’s not necessary that we do that right off the bat. The necessity is to come together in prayer, fraternal camaraderie, a sense of trust and confidence, and speak openly to one another. And then, after a while we’ll say, ‘Ok, it’s time to set the conclaves.”
The Vatican press spokesman, Father Lombardi, told the media this morning that the lack of rush to set a date derives from a “desire for adequate, thorough, not rushed preparation.” The process isn’t a “convention,” but more a “reflection,” he explains.
There’s actually an independent “adopt a cardinal” initiative in which people are signing up to pray for a specific cardinal as he moves toward the conclave. (I’ve got Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts, which seems about right.) Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step aside to devote himself to a life of prayer has been provided a lesson in prayerful unity for the Church, even as every Sunday Mass was a little unsettled this past first pope-less Sunday.
Cardinal Dolan isn’t the only media-friendly American bishop. They’ve been offering daily briefings — for a “secretive” process, as the conclave is usually described, the Americans are being quite transparent about their deliberations, and about the needs of the Church.
Cardinal George of Chicago, among others, has been open about the “terrible wound” that of the abusive scandals and the need for clear intolerance from the top. It has been suggested that the speed with which Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien was cleared away from public ministry, never mind the conclave, is a sign of a growing consensus about intolerance for transgressions from the top. Any serious conversation about the prospect of an American pope is born of this — when it comes to a diocese that has faced overwhelming shame and reform, the world thinks of a Sean Cardinal O’Malley.
The Vatican has already made some strides in improving its communications. Next up: reforming the bureaucracy. That’s certainly the buzz, and it’s undoubtedly a central need (a blueprint has been provided).
That having been said: Today’s briefing has been cancelled due to concerns over too much talking. If there’s an American pope, it’s going to take a while for Europe to get used to him, to say the very least.
By the way: If you are interested in these things enough to have read this far: The best Twitter feed for news surrounding the conclave currently comes from the Catholic News Service.
What will the conclave itself look like?
Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga told Catholic News Service that, during the conclave, the cardinals spend most of their time in the Sistine Chapel, even though they cast ballots only four times a day. The time in the chapel includes prayer, writing names on ballots and counting them. But when casting each vote, each cardinal must stand and publicly swear, in Latin, that he is voting according to his conscience. With 115 cardinal-electors expected, that will take time. “In front of the crucifix and in front of the ‘Final Judgment’ painting, we say, ‘I call Jesus as a witness, and he will judge me that I have elected according to my conscience,’ so you can imagine … why it takes so long. And in the meantime, when everybody is casting their votes, we are praying, so it is like a big cenacle of prayer.” “This is beautiful,” Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga said. “This is the most loving experience, how an election should be. I wish all the elections in the world could be like that: in an atmosphere of prayer.”
The Sistine Chapel part of the deliberations may be the shortest part of the broader conclave process. The general congregation talks are happening in the Paul VI hall, in the same room in which I made a brief presentation at a conference on the Church in the Americas in December. (That’s Quebec’s Marc Cardinal Ouellet sitting by me at the dais.)
At this very moment, as I post this, the cardinals are praying.
At Masses, at holy hours, in private devotion, many Catholics around the world join them.
I’ve been talking a lot on radio recently about one of my last encounters with Pope Benedict XVI over in Rome; I’ve been asked about it a lot. It was at that aforementioned conference in December, sponsored by the Pontifical Commission on Latin America and the Knights of Columbus. After the opening Mass at St. Peter’s, the pope joined 200 or so of us in different walks of life. He offered what I describe as a bit of an admonishment: Live holy lives in daily encounter with Christ. If you’re not doing that, you are not who you say you are. And you are not going to successfully evangelize. It’s at the core of the Church’s — and the cardinals’ — current reflection. As it should be.