Selecting a pope – the processAusten Ivereigh
- 2 March 2013
The period prior to the conclave is crucial for cardinal electors to discuss the central issues facing the Church and to help them determine who would best address them as pope. A former senior aide to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor recalls past pre-conclave meetings and how influential they have been
Voting in the Sistine Chapel, with all the accompanying drama and historical resonance, overshadows, in the popular perception of the papal transition, the period preceding it, when the world’s cardinals gather daily to take the temperature of the world, the Church and each other. These “general congregations” are vital for shaping the way the votes will go once the conclave itself begins.
What happens in the Sistine Chapel itself is more like a retreat, or a liturgy, than a discussion: the cardinals sit on tiered rows, conversing briefly with their neighbours, or saying Rosaries – but the focus is on the voting itself. So, too, are the conversations over lunch and dinner back in the Vatican residence where they stay during the voting, the Casa Santa Marta: what matters is the voting maths.
During the period of the general congregations, on the other hand, the College of Cardinals meets as a body – both electors and non-voting members (aged over 80) – each morning. But just as important are the dinners and receptions, usually in language groups, in the national colleges. In 2005, for example, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor hosted a gathering of the English-speaking cardinals in the Irish College, and a smaller, “European intelligentsia” dinner at the English College attended by, among others, Cardinals Martini, Danneels and Kasper.
The formal congregations begin as soon as the see is vacant, and not all cardinals need to be present. In 2005, there were 13 such daily meetings from 9 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. They take place in the Synod Hall, which looks like a university auditorium, with a presider’s chair and seats arranged theatre-style. Cardinals are given four-minute slots and get buzzed if they go over (but some over-eighties were given leeway, leading to complaints that the congregations were like a long-winded synod).
The early congregations deal with legal and practical issues: it takes two days, for example, to read through the rules of the sede vacante period; the date for the start of the conclave is agreed; and issues relating to the death of the Pope – not relevant, of course, this time – are discussed: in the second (October) conclave of 1978, a major topic was whether to conduct an autopsy on the body of John Paul I in order to quieten the swirling rumours about how he died (after seeking medical opinion, they decided against). In 2005, much of the discussion in the congregations over the five days preceding the funeral of John Paul II were to do with the management of that unprecedented global event. There are also debates about regulations: in the first (August) conclave of 1978, the cardinals agreed to restrict the voting in the conclave to the ballot only (it was technically still possible to elect a pope by “acclamation” or “compromise”) but went on to reject an application from over-80 cardinals, now banned from the conclave, to be allowed to vote, on the grounds that only a new pope had the authority to reverse Paul VI’s new rules. This highlights an important point about the College of Cardinals during the interregnum: it governs the Church at this time, but does not have the legislative authority of the See of St Peter; its legal power is circumscribed by the rules of the interregnum established by the last Pope – which explains why, earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI felt he needed to issue a motu proprio allowing the interregnum to be shortened if a majority of the cardinals so decide.
Another typical topic is media access. In 2005, many cardinals wanted their deliberations to be insulated from the media (to prevent parallel discussions that would put pressure on the college); the Americans, on the other hand, wanted to keep the right to speak to the press up until the conclave. What was eventually agreed was that the cardinals would be free to speak to the media before the funeral, but should desist afterwards. (The effect was dramatic: deprived of access to the cardinals in press conferences and interviews, journalists began interviewing each other.)
After the “business” is over, what follows in the general congregations is a remarkably free-flowing discussion of the state of the Church and what the next papacy should turn its attention to. Sometimes the proposals are very specific: according to George Weigel’s new book, Evangelical Catholicism, there were calls in 2005 for the next Pope to release the Jesuits from their special vow of obedience to the Pope. This so-called “fourth vow” would effectively have meant the dissolution and re-founding of the Society of Jesus. According to Weigel there was also a detailed plan for the reorganisation of the Curia.
These specific calls to get a grip on this or that issue are balanced by broader speeches on how the Church is seen, and what might be obstacles to its mission. Some speeches touch on the qualities – pastoral, administrative, spiritual – that are needed in the next Pope (“which of course makes you think”, one cardinal told me, “about who in the room has those qualities”). No names are mooted at the congregations, but are of course discussed over the interregnum dinners.
The congregations offer an important platform to cardinals who lack visibility. Albino Luciani, elected John Paul I in 1978 in the fastest conclave ever, was a complete surprise to the press, who hadn’t seen how he emerged in the congregations. The cardinal who chaired them, Carlo Confalonieri, said later: “I have to admit that, at the start, a number of cardinals were not well acquainted with him, but this could no longer be said after the daily meetings that were held under my presidency.”
The major platform, of course, is given to the presiding dean of the college himself. In 2005, it was the way he managed the congregations which decided many in favour of Ratzinger. The cardinals who gathered for the first conclave in nearly 30 years were, for the first time, a genuinely global body, reflecting the internationalisation of the college under John Paul II. But diversity also meant fragmentation: I remember seeing clutches of developing-world cardinals wandering around Rome as dazed as first-time tourists; one African asked me, when he knew I worked for the English cardinal, “where are these dinners they are talking about?”
Many hardly knew each other, had poor Italian and little knowledge of Rome, and had little sense of whom to vote for; yet they all knew the gracious, silver-haired prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he knew them. Many were struck by how he called on each cardinal by name – Pope Benedict is renowned for his capacity to retain information – before addressing him in a language he knew, and listened carefully to what he said. This capacity for shepherding a disparate group into a body convinced many that Ratzinger was not just a great teacher but a great shepherd too.
The dean of the congregations beginning this weekend, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is an over-80 and therefore not in the conclave, which gives the chance for another to stand out. In 2005, there was already a strong drive for Ratzinger – the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, made it clear it was God’s will he should be elected – and the congregations confirmed it. But this time round, at least 10 names are in the frame – and the cardinals will need the congregations to discern which of them (or indeed another) has a calling as Successor of St Peter.
Also, without a funeral to talk about, the discussions will give more time to the needs of the times and of the Church. Benedict XVI’s strengths as shepherd and teacher combined with weaknesses as governor, and they will be looking for someone who can put the Pope’s house in better order, while taking forward the “New Evangelisation” programme he began. But whatever the subject under discussion, the congregations are always about answering one vital question: who, among us?
* Austen Ivereigh is a former director of public affairs for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. He is now director of Catholic Voices, a group that provides Catholic speakers to the media.