As the 115 voting cardinals of the Roman Catholic church file into the Sistine Chapel today to elect the next pope, at least some of the chaos and confusion caused by Benedict XVI’s resignation has cleared.
Last week, as the last of the cardinals straggled into Rome from cities all over the world, there was a sense of rudderlessness: many of the cardinals barely knew each other and had had little time to talk things over. Lacking the usual period of mourning during which discreet lobbying and canvassing normally gets under way, the church seemed to have been bumped into a process for which it was quite unready.
But yesterday, with the conclusion of the 10th and final pre-Conclave congregation of cardinals, some clarity was finally emerging.
The cardinals know that the church needs a pope with global vision, a good communicator, a man with the energy and capacity to get to grips with a Vatican bureaucracy whose corruption was exposed in the VatiLeaks scandal. And they need a pope committed to drawing a firm line under the scandal of priestly sex abuse which has rocked the church to its foundations.
Last week the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) published a damning list of cardinals who they claim are tainted by their failure to get a grip on the scandal. Papal spokesman Father Lombardi commented: “Snap does not elect the pope,” but he and all other insiders are all too well aware of how the scandal continues to tear the church apart. Today there is still no equivalent of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went into the 2005 Conclave a favourite and emerged at the fourth ballot as Pope Benedict XVI, but the list of favourites has slimmed down to half a dozen or so, including Latin Americans, Europeans, Africans and at least one Asian. But the fact that, for the first time ever, the possibility of a Yankee pope was being taken seriously, gives an indication of how open the race remains.
The first vote is expected at 6pm UK time Tuesday, but today Father Lombardi was quick to stress it is unlikely to be decisive. “It’s difficult for the Conclave’s first vote to have a positive outcome,” he said. “In 2005, the smoke emerged late, at 8.04pm, and it was black, as we all remember.”
And so – unless something extraordinary and unprecedented occurs – the wait for the white smoke begins. It is one of the most ancient elections in the world, the fact that the decisive actor is supposed to be the Holy Spirit being only one of its peculiarities.
To try to ensure the post-Conclave unity of the church and prevent schisms, the cardinals are locked away from the outside world for the duration of the Conclave. Until the Conclave of 2005, the lock-in was quite literal, with the cardinals confined in the Sistine Chapel, in which they slept in simple cots. This time around, for only the second time, they will enjoy the simple hospitality of a hospice within Vatican City, St Martha’s House, and will be bussed to and from the chapel.
But the security imperative has taken on new force in the internet age, with all telephones and other devices confiscated, electronic jammers fitted in the chapel, serving staff sworn to secrecy, and the cardinals warned that any breach could be punished by excommunication.
The paraphernalia of the Conclave is all now in place: a copper flue has been run up the walls of the chapel, exiting just below Michelangelo’s Day of Judgement to emerge within view of St Peter’s Square, where thousands of Romans and many of the 5,600 journalists accredited to cover the Conclave will gather twice daily, before noon and again before 7pm, to await the moment when white smoke emerges, conveying the message that two-thirds of cardinals have voted for the same candidate and “habemus papam” – “we have a pope”. Unless there is a deadlock, it is likely that the election will be over by the end of the week – giving the new man just a few days to prepare to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics through Holy Week to Easter.
Criticisms that in the last Conclave it was practically impossible to tell the colour of the smoke have been addressed with the installation of a powerful new stove. A special chemical is added to the burning ballot papers to turn the smoke white.
As in previous Conclaves, the voting cardinals will be scrutinising their ranks for a man who offers a contrast to the previous incumbent, without threatening to delegitimise his legacy. The qualities in demand for what one of the men spoken of as papabile, literally “pope-able”, include a vision for the global church; a gift for communication and something of the common touch, which Benedict so painfully lacks; fluent Italian; a hands-on knowledge and understanding of the way the Vatican works, and of how it often fails to work, along with the determination and the managerial skills to make the sort of root-and-branch reforms of the institution for which neither the retiring pope nor his Polish predecessor had either the gifts or the stomach.
In the past, the age of the pope was also a vexed issue: if he was very young, the Church risked being stuck with the same man, good or bad, for many decades; if too old, he might lack the energy to make anything of his powers. But Benedict’s bold decision to resign, if taken as a precedent, may well usher in a new age of younger pontiffs.
the lovable-looking 69-year-old Argentinian is the child of Italian parents and has spent many years in Rome, making him an attractive cross-over candidate. But he may be too close to Angelo Sodano, the former Secretary of State tainted by complicity with the abusive Mexican prelate Marcial Maciel.
ODILO PEDRO SCHERER
As a front-runner from Brazil, which has more Catholics than any other country, the 61-year-old would be the first Third World pope, while his German roots and high-level experience in Rome would reassure cardinals that he could get to grips with the bureaucrats.
Italy still runs the Church, and many Italians are desperate to get one of their own back into the Apostolic Palace. Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, is the best-placed Italian. At 71 he is a suitable age, and his long pastoral experience promises a pope at home with the masses.
OSCAR ROGRIGUES MARADIAGA
the 70-year-old Honduran has much of John Paul II about him – tall, charismatic, politically passionate on behalf of the poor, a hero in his own country – plus he plays the saxophone. If the pope were elected by Catholics at large, he would be a shoo-in.
The brilliant cardinal from Ghana, 61, has made no secret of his belief that an African pope is overdue. He would offer the cleanest break with the old regime.
Ouellet, 68, of Canada: a Vatican insider fluent in six languages, intellectually very much in the mould of the last pope but more at ease in the world – and with a strong record in condemning priestly sex abuse – though Snap say he has refused to meet victims.
O’Malley, from the US, 68, is a Fransiscan with plenty of pastoral experience outside America and unlike his papabile American colleagues has no questions to answer about how he has dealt with the sex abuse scandal.