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Conclave begins as cardinals and people in the street express their hopes

VATICAN CITY (SE) : After six pre-conclave meetings, the cardinals settled on March 12 as the day to begin the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. The decision was made on March 8 at what is known as the general congregations, which were completed on the following day.

As the Sunday Examiner goes to press, the 115 elector-cardinals are gathering in St. Peter’s Basilica before proceeding to the Pauline Chapel for prayer.

From there, they will move to the Sistine Chapel to pray to the Holy Spirit and settle down to electing the 266th pope.

One ballot may be held on the first day and up to four on succeeding days.

After the cardinals have settled in the chapel the doors are closed and, metaphorically, do not open until white smoke billows into the sky.

During the pre-conclave meetings, the Church in the world, the needs of New Evangelisation, the Holy See, the different dicasteries of the Roman Curia, relations with local Churches and bishops, plus the expectations and profiles of a possible future pope were the main issues addressed.

One Vatican accredited journalist described the mood at the congregations as somewhat fragmented, without much cohesion to the cardinals’ discussions. He likened them to fish flopping around out of water.

However, after four days, a blanket ban was put on cardinals talking to the press, a particularly sore point among the delegation from the United States of America (US), which had up until that stage been giving daily news conferences.

The director of the US bishops’ media relations, Mary Ann Walsh, reflected what is being interpreted as tension between the Italian and US cardinals when she alluded to an Italian preference for gossip rather than news.

Consequently, the only information coming out has been from the increasingly vague briefings from the Vatican press officer, Father Federico Lombardi. He said that by day four of the congregations 153 cardinals were in attendance, but only 113 of the 115 cardinal electors.

Father Lombardi reported that the cardinals said that they wanted time to prepare, but he claimed that this does not mean that the conclave would be a drawn out affair.

The Vatican press officer explained that congregations are not a synod or a congress, from which as much information is reported as possible. He described congregations as a journey cardinals undertake to reflect, so they will be well prepared for the conclave.

He called them a path of greater confidentiality designed to protect the cardinals’ freedom to think, reflect and discern, ending in the conclave where confidentiality is absolute.

As a result, daily press briefings are only summaries that have been given the okay by the College of Cardinals.

Pope Benedict XVI upped security on the conclave in his February instruction revising some of the proceedings of the election process.

A breach of security or confidentiality now carries automatic excommunication, which applies equally to cardinals as it does to Vatican staff, security personnel sweeping the venue prior to the start of the conclave and technicians.

A false floor has been installed in the Sistine Chapel and Internet, radio and telephone jamming devices have been put in place.

He also gave the cardinals leeway to start a conclave before the required 15 days had elapsed since the Chair of Peter has become vacant, but only on the condition that all the voting cardinals are present at the gathering when the decision is made. They can also decide to put it off for a few days.

Maybe the most significant change is that any ballot must produce an absolute majority to elect a pope. Under the guidelines from Pope John Paul II, after 34 ballots had been taken, a simple majority vote was then taken between the top two vote getters.

The new guidelines state that if no decision has been made at this stage, a candidate must garner two-thirds of the votes from one ballot, in which neither of the candidates are allowed to participate.

However, under the old system, in the event of a continued deadlock (which could happen if there is an even number voting), the conclave could go back to square one and have another round of votes in which everyone was again eligible.

But in Pope Benedict’s revision, a deadlock can only be broken by continuing to vote for the same two candidates until one of them gets the required two-thirds majority.

At the beginning of the conclave, the cardinals have to promise and swear that they will maintain the confidentiality of proceedings and refrain from using electronic equipment, as well as stating that they are fully aware that a breach of confidentially incurs automatic excommunication.

Meanwhile, results from an online survey conducted by UCA News published on March 4 show that among the 2,300 respondents, 72 per cent of whom live in Asia, more than three quarters identified sexual abuse and how Church authorities respond to it as the most important challenge facing the Church and the new pope.

A close second was conflict in the Church in Europe and the United States of America, with 66 per cent identifying this as either the highest or second highest priority for the new papal administration.

Other issues of concern include unifying the Church and a more practical ecumenical approach.

Almost two-thirds of respondents say that future popes’ tenure should be limited, either for a fixed term (23 per cent) or up to a retirement age of 75 (42 per cent). The remainder thought it should be a lifetime commitment.

There were criticisms too, especially over pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, as well as what people see as the downplaying of the influence of national and regional bishops’ conferences, or local diocesan autonomy. 

Nearly 79 per cent of respondents say the next pope should come from outside Europe, with 45 per cent wanting one from an Asian country.

Ironically, the date for the all-male conclave was announced on International Women’s Day. Father Lombardi opened his press briefing with a greeting for the women present, adding a delicate touch by presenting flowers.

He told the press that the cardinals had given the thumbs up to the online prayer initiative dubbed, Adopt a Cardinal. He revealed that over 362,000 people had subscribed and promised to pray for the cardinal allocated to them by the website during the conclave.

Expectations are high for the 265th successor of St. Peter. He may even be expected to walk on water!

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