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VATICAN CITY — Cardinals from around the world met formally Monday for the first of an unknown number of discussions before they will enter the Sistine Chapel to vote for a successor to now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
They haven’t set a date for that conclave, in part because 12 of the 115 electors hadn’t arrived in Rome. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., told reporters they were in no hurry, apart from wanting to be home when Holy Week begins March 24.
“You should be very slow in deliberation and very quick in decision-making,” said Cardinal George, citing the leader of their meeting, who was quoting St. Thomas Aquinas.
The cardinals spent their first meeting in prayer, listening to a reading of the rules for a papal election, learning to use the gear that provides translation into five languages and taking an oath to keep the substance of their talks secret. Each of 142 cardinals present took turns kneeling before a crucifix with his hand on a book of the gospels, to make this promise.
In addition to deciding when the conclave will start, the cardinals will choose two preachers to address them, one before the conclave and one shortly after they enter the Sistine Chapel. These meditations are “about the state of the Church and the importance of the choice they have to make,” said Kurt Martens, associate professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America.
The preconclave meetings are run by the elected dean of the College of Cardinals, who, in this case, is a clouded figure. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state during John Paul II’s papacy and the early part of Benedict’s pontificate, is 85 and will not enter the conclave to vote. Many advocates for child victims of sexual abuse by priests say his track record as secretary of state should have led Benedict to rule him ineligible to serve as dean.
Cardinal Sodano is widely blamed not only for failing to recognize the gravity and threat to the church’s credibility from the sex abuse eeeeeecrisis but for shielding a notorious offender who was a favorite of Pope John Paul II, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado.
He had founded the Legionaries of Christ, an order with extraordinary success in recruiting priests worldwide. In 1998, several former Legionaries filed a formal complaint with the office of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, saying Father Maciel had sexually abused them as minors. Cardinal Ratzinger launched an investigation but was blocked by Cardinal Sodano, who had received large cash gifts from the Legionaries, according to an inquiry by Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner in the National Catholic Reporter.
As Pope John Paul II neared death, Cardinal Ratzinger reopened the investigation and as Pope in 2006 removed Father Maciel from ministry. After Father Maciel’s death in 2008, news broke that not only had Father Maciel molested many minor students, but he had two wives and at least three children. One of his sons said Father Maciel had molested him also.
Advocates for sexual abuse victims are concerned the cardinals won’t have a frank discussion about improving the church’s response to sexual abuse if Cardinal Sodano is leading the discussion. “Sodano may be the most most morally compromised of all the papal electors, in part because of his horrific misconduct in the Maciel matter,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “His leadership role at this critical juncture effectively negates all the Vatican proclamations about concern for victims.”
But Mr. Martens, an authority on conclaves, doubts Cardinal Sodano can quash the issue.
“I cannot imagine that the cardinals who had to deal with the fallout of the sex abuse scandal would even entertain the possibility of not seriously discussing the church’s response to the crisis. He might try to dismiss it, but he is only the first among equals,” Mr. Martens said.
The church’s response to sexual abuse “will be an important issue. It certainly is on the minds and hearts of all of us from the United States,” Cardinal George said.
Sexual abuse by clerics “has not been addressed as it should have been. . . That is a terrible wound in the body of the church. It has to be looked at.”
Monday morning, the American cardinals said, Cardinal Sodano was an effective leader.
“We concluded on time. If that is any indication of leadership style, then we’ve had good leadership,” Cardinal Wuerl said.
Cardinal Wuerl, who at meetings of the American bishops is a master of working their coffee breaks to build consensus, remarked that the cardinals’ coffee break was an important opportunity for “hearing from bishops what they see as the concerns of the life of the church.”
While groups of cardinals may talk informally about who is qualified to be the next pope, there is nothing resembling a public campaign. Church rules dating to the 6th century prevent anyone from seeking votes, though their colleagues may promote them just before a conclave. Cardinals take their pledge to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance seriously.
Cardinal Edward Egan, 80, the retired archbishop of New York, was a seminarian who lunched daily with cardinals during the run-up to the conclave that elected Pope Paul VI, was an aide outside the conclaves that elected both Popes John Paul, and voted in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict. Now too old to vote, he recalled his profound sense of responsibility.
“All of a sudden you say to yourself, ‘Good Lord, how did this ever happen?’ ” he said of his former role as an elector. He resolved that “I’m going to do it as well as I can, don’t make a mistake. You find yourself praying and thinking and even reading between the sessions. In 2005, I was kind of overwhelmed . . . but very awed, touched, and all of a sudden inclined to be more prayerful.”
Before the conclave opens, the cardinals will move to a large guest house inside the Vatican. The cardinals will not be allowed television, radio, newspapers, cell phones, computers, or any other means of communication with the outside world. The Sistine Chapel will be swept for bugging devices and jamming equipment will be installed so no one can get a message out.
Just before they enter the conclave, the cardinals will celebrate a public Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. That afternoon, they will proceed to the Sistine Chapel, where they will take an oath to obey the rules. Then everyone who doesn’t have a job there is ordered out, and they hear from the preacher they chose earlier.
The chapel is chosen for Michelangelo’s powerful images of the Last Judgment, which remind the cardinals that they must answer to God for their choice. Within the chapel, no talking will take place — apart from scripted prayer and announcements of the tallies.
Theoretically, the cardinals may vote for any male human being willing to be baptized and ordained. In practice, no one below the rank of cardinal has been elected since 1378.
The balloting process is long and intricate, limiting them to at most four rounds per day. Each morning and afternoon, the cardinals will draw lots to choose three among them to count the votes and another three to check their work.
With 115 electors, 77 votes will be required for the two-thirds majority. There are provisions for a runoff if no candidate has two-thirds after 13 days. But no conclave has lasted more than five days since a 54-day marathon in 1831.
After a man has been elected, the most senior cardinal will ask him if he accepts. At least two men, including St. Charles Borromeo in the 16th century, refused. Having accepted, the new pope will choose a new name and the cardinals will pledge their obedience and pray with him.
Meanwhile, the most famous part of the conclave is the smoke that rises from the tiny chimney of the Sistine Chapel when the ballots are burned. If no candidate has received the required two-thirds majority, the smoke is supposed to be black. The smoke for a winning ballot is supposed to be white. In practice, both have gone gray.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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