The Sistine Chapel is seen as preparations continue for the conclave at the Vatican March 9. Cardinal electors will enter the chapel in the afternoon March 12 to begin the conclave to elect the new pope. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Setting an official date
for anything in the Eternal Cityespecially for this most unusual papal
conclaveis a small miracle in itself.
Convoking 117 jet-setting cardinal electors from six continents and
50 different countries for a momentous decision all in one single room certainly is not easy. A lot of time and patience are required.
Nonetheless, late last
Friday all the cardinals were finally present in Paul VI Hall (less two who
were excused) and unanimously voted to schedule the conclave to begin tomorrow
Quite frankly, the extra
time Vatican journalistsvaticanistiand papal scholars have enjoyed has been good for some things and bad for others.
Meeting of cardinal electors this past week in Vatican City
The entire month since
Benedict’s surprise resignation announcement has proven advantageous for
dusting off old 2005 flash cards of cardinals and updating database profiles to
scrutinize potential papabili,
cardinals who are considered to have the right stuff to become pope.
But the month the
vaticanisti and papal scholars
have enjoyed to intensify their studies of the Church’s 117 electable princes
has often led to over-analysis and crowding out the mysterious inspiration the
Holy Spirit. Who knows if the cardinals’ own brain-trusts have been working too
hard and for too long as well.
By now we have heard every
hypothesis from scores of budget-pinching and rookie mass media stumbling on
Piazza San Pietro’s uneven cobblestones. They multitask as correspondent-producer-fixers and are armed with the latest generation of
smartphones, tablets, and other species of espresso-stained electronic gadgets
that replace expensive backroom media techs.
You wonder when they have
time to actually research their cases, much less post and broadcast their
news. But indeed timemoltissimo tempothey have had.
They have spoken of the
“Bergoglio comeback” (apparently he was a runner-up in 2005) and the mightily leveraged
“Italian block” that will surely vote in one of their own to fill a 35-year power vacuum.
They have analyzed and
lobbied for non-traditional but surely viable candidates from Latin America (Cardinal Scherer of Brazil),
Africa (Cardinal Turkson
of Ghana), and Asia (the “baby” 54-year-old Cardinal Tagle of
And lately there is a lot
of intense focus on and fascination with the boisterous Cardinal Archbishop of
New York, Timothy
Dolan, whose backslapping jokes they love and folksy self-deprecation they
just can’t get enough of.
North of the U.S. border,
they are finally taking notice of the polyglot, jack-of-all-trades Cardinal Ouellet, the
former archbishop of Quebec and current powerful prefect of the Vatican’s
Congregation for Bishops. But like some late-night comedians, they simply
imagine the Canadian reforming the Vatican Curia with a swift hockey stick and
a couple of really rough body checks.
Finally, just as short
sales finalize on 2012 doomsday bunkers, they have reignited this capricious
real estate market with new end-times
projections. They speak of a
conclave that will elect a “last pope.”
Doomsday prophets St. Malachy and Nostradamus are getting air-time again.
Too much time has led
these young vaticanisti to
follow portentous clues, from a lightning bolt that struck St. Peter’s the evening Benedict XVI's resignation was announced, to a close shave with a comet four days later and meteorites exploding across central
Russia, to a small earthquake that struck below the pope emeritus’ temporary
residence three days into the interregnum. A wave of paranoid secular media have now resurrected the
prophecies of the obscure 12th-century monk, St. Malachy, and the better-known
Renaissance oracle Nostradamus. They say Malachy’s “Petrus
Romanus” prediction falls squarely with Nostradamus’ apocalyptic “black pope”.
Ergo, all jittery fingers point
to the popular African Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana,
president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Never mind that
Nostradamus probably referred to a “black-hearted one” and that Turkson will
not be the only Peter sitting in the Sistine on Tuesday. There is also Cardinal
Peter Erdő, the decidedly fair-skinned archbishop of
Budapest, who could compete for the "last pope" job. I doubt he will be hitting the
tanning beds before tomorrow.
With now more than plenty to ponder, disagree with, and be
nervous about, the conclave has now all the hype of a Super Bowl week. But as long as we have still a few
hours before cardinal electors cast their first ballots into silver urns, I
have gathered some of today’s most serious Vatican experts for one last
picks: Taboos, trends, and
I spoke with Edward Pentin, the much sought-after vaticanista for several reputable media outlets, like the
National Catholic Register, The Catholic Herald, Zenit, Vatican Radio and now
the U.K.’s Sky News Television.
Never short on courage
with words, I asked Pentin to take the first shot on who he foresees as the
Vaticanista Edward Pentin.
“If pushed, I'd say Cardinal Scola has the best chances,” Pentin said. “He
has a reasonably strong record of governance and, as an Italian distanced from
the Vatican infighting, he's in a better position than many to enact Curial
reform. … Scola is believed to have given Benedict the idea for a New
Evangelization, and some say he's Benedict's preferred successor.”
While the 71-year-old archbishop of Milan is not exactly what growing tides of experts are
predicting in terms of much-desired youth and energy, Pentin says, “my feeling
also is that cardinals are likely to play it safe, and [Scola] personifies safety
and stability. But the Holy Spirit is apt to spring surprises.”
Samuel Gregg, the
Australian author of The Modern Papacy and Oxford-trained research director of the Acton Institute for
the Study of Religion and Liberty, sees real possibilities coming from Asia:
“There are a number of well-qualified papabili from Asia-Oceania. I am a great admirer of
Cardinal Pell. He has taken a Church that had embraced some of progressivism's
most inane aspects and turned it around.”
Gregg said that the conservative
archbishop of Sydney “has a truly international grasp of the life and direction
of the universal Church” but also that this same is true for the Archbishop of
Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who he claims “should be taken very
Among other things, Gregg
says that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith understands better than some Western bishops
just how important it is to continue focusing on the liturgy.
“But in the end, I don’t
think geography really matters,” Gregg says. “Nor does the Church need to embrace its own
version of the contemporary disease of identity-politics. We should worry far
more about a person’s holiness than about whether he comes from this or that
Recently John Allen, Jr.,
the veteran correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and CNN and author
of All the Pope’s Men and Conclave, short-listed Cardinals Ouellet, Sandri, Scherer, and Scola during a public address at Rome’s Lay Center. However, he said this was because of limits of
time and that we cannot really pick just four papabili: “The field seems fairly
wide open, so while these are four men who will get a serious look, I don’t
think they’re the only possibilities.”
proven administrators, either in pastoral settings or in the Vatican, and could
strike other cardinals as a good bet to clean up the perceived management
problems in the Holy See,” Allen said.
Journalist and vaticanista, John Allen, Jr.
those willing to take a stab is Sandro Magister,
perhaps the most respected Italian Vatican expert, whose writings for L’Espresso
magazine and debates on television have had wide appeal abroad, particularly in
the United States.
Magister is an admitted "Dolanista," an Italian booster for the cardinal archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, who was the locally popular and
of Rome’s Pontifical North American College from 1994 to 2001.
Magisterwho ranks the
“capacity to evangelize and toughness and courage in decision making” as top
priorities for the next popehas not hid his deep admiration for the Big
Apple’s cardinal, whom he says is “a dyed in the wool Ratzingerian” whose
radiant smile and charism represent the “vigor of both body and mind which
Joseph Ratzinger recognized he had lost and defined as necessary for his
As the outspoken, jovial
and aggressive president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan has led the American Church to become “resurgent” and would
help do the same for a religiously apathetic Europe, Magister says.
“As a growth model from
past decline, one looks to the Church in the United States,” Magister says. “The most recent
rebirth of the Church’s vitality in France in its battle against gay
marriage [owes much] to the American-style Church.”
Magister says gone are the
days in which it was unthinkable for a “super power” nation to supply an electable
pope, due to “the critical and combative way” Dolan has led the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “even against, whenever necessary, the political powers that be.”
Magister, like John Allen,
thinks the Italian cardinalswho enjoy an advantageous majority among
electors at nearly 25 percentare not organized enough as a unit to vote in
force for one of their own nationals. He has even quoted Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini
as saying Dolan is his “dream candidate” and that many other Italians would
back an American as pope.
Edward Pentin, however,
disagrees in part with Magister. While he does not rule out that some Italian
cardinals would vote for an American colleague, “Italian cardinals, especially
the older ones, are no fans of American brashness and elements of
Italian Vaticanista Sandro Magister
‘cowboy culture.’ They're not quite sure what to make of Cardinal Dolan and
think some of his jokes inappropriate when dealing with serious matters related
to the Church, but any real prejudice probably belongs to a small minority.”
Papal leadership: “Jesus
Christ with an MBA”
Father Thomas Reese, the
Jesuit author of Inside the Vatican
(Harvard, 1998), spoke to me about ideal leadership qualities for a pope.
“The cardinals are looking
for someone who is holy, a wise theologian, and a communicator, who can also
reform the Vatican Curia,” Reese said. “In other words, Jesus Christ with an MBA.”
Reese said that no one
man, as holy as he may be, will ever have “all the attributes necessary to be a
“Jesus,” he said, “founded
the Church and left it to [imperfect] human beings to run.”
Samuel Gregg believes
brain power is a perennial concern for the cardinal electors, especially in
terms of the ability to dispel heresy and many forms of secular deceit. He identified the Italian Scola, Canadian Ouellet, and Australian Pell as among those in the Sistine Chapel who
“understand the scale of the challenge…and demonstrate that they possess the
intellectual, pastoral, and organizational skills needed to translate this
knowledge into the work of evangelizing the world in the truth of the Catholic
Gregg, a hard-line critic
of the secularization of Western culture, says the next pope must act for
"critical engagement" with modern culture.
“We live in a
post-Enlightenment world. There's no going back to a world before the late-17th
century…And there are some good things associated with modernity.”
Gregg cites among the
serious intellectual and cultural problems brought on by modernity a narrow
view of reason, a consequentialist ethic, and “the use of cramped conceptions of tolerance to destroy
Papal scholar Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ
Father Reese says a worrying trend is particularly evident within the
Catholic Church in North America, which, while “more dynamic than the European
church, also has problems.”
“One out of three people
raised Catholic have left the Church, and most leave before they reach 23 years
of age,” he said. The next pope should help us “figure out how to preach the
Gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people in the 21st
century, especially young people who are turned off by the Church.”
Edward Pentin likewise
ranks “evangelizing ability” as a top skill set for the next pope, but prioritizes
“orthodoxy” above such communication talent. He believes popes must get
the truth right before getting out the message and convincing others of it.
Pentin says other top
skills in order of priority are toughness and courage in decision-making,
managerial skills, youth and energy, and Vatican experience.
For John Allen what is
most needed for papal leadership are skills to stem
the rising tide of attacks on religious freedom throughout the world. Allen
says this involves “not just the church/state tussles in the West, such as the
Obama contraception mandates, but a growing number of situations in which
Christians are the primary victims of physical persecution and assault.”
Tuesday’s cardinal electors will also assess who among them can adequately lead
a New Evangelization “in a very competitive lifestyle marketplace ” and amid
biotechnological breakthroughs that “pose mind-bendingly new ethical questions”
to the Church’s 1.2 billion faithful.
“Honestly,” Allen said, “no one personnot even a popecan possibly handle such
disparate challenges alone. The trick is to find someone with an eye for
spotting talent, who can put the right persons into the right jobs to lead the
words, you need a good manager, someone with a track record of doing this sort
of thing at other levels…It seems to point towards a proven commodity like
Scola or Schönborn or Scherer or Ouellet, not a ‘roll of the dice’ such as
Tagle or Turkson.”
Papal scholar Samuel Gregg.
agrees with Allen about the need for a
good Vatican manager and goes on explain that “organizational dysfunctionality”
can inhibit the Church's ability to evangelize well. “That said,” he continued, “It's
not the role of the bishop of Romeor any bishop for that matterto be a CEO.
Our Lord didn't commission managers or technocrats. He commissioned Apostles.”
Tough act to follow:
Continuing the John Paul-Benedict legacy
When asked how
his book The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic
Church captures the great
changes that began with John Paul II’s papacy and continued with his
right-hand man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Allen says he thinks
Benedict leaves behind “an impressive legacy as a teaching pope.”
reflections on the intersection of faith, reason and secular culture have laid
the intellectual foundations for a successful post-modern form of Catholicism.
It’ll be up to the next pope to take that teaching and turn it into practice.”
Samuel Gregg said the
previous two popes “addressed these problems by naming them for what they are,
and explaining how they don't do justice to human reason and freedom, let alone
Gregg says that Benedict
in particular was known for his quiet nature, yet “far less has been said
about his fearlessness.”
“Unlike some priests and
bishops of the immediate post-conciliar generation, Joseph Ratzinger never
seemed intimidated by modernity, perhaps [because] he understood its
pathologies and the profound limitations of the secular mind so well…Benedict
had an uncanny ability to go straight to the root of the problem, explain how
it emerged, and how the Church can address these issues in ways that bring
people back to the central truths entrusted by Christ to his Church.”
In any case, given the extent
to which secularist assumptions and expectations have limited and corrupted our
world's vision of human flourishing, Gregg says “the next pope really has no
choice but to continue along the same lines.”
Last word: Maybe not a fast election
We all know the Holy Spirit may throw Vatican experts the proverbial curve ball when the announcement “Habemus Papam!” is made to the world.
Whatever happens, all our
experts have agreed the
anticipated start date was strategic to allow for the conclave to conclude
before March 24, Palm Sunday, when cardinal bishops are canonically required to
return to their home dioceses for Holy Week and when the pope’s own diocese of
Rome will need him to officiate at the sacred processions and celebrate
the Paschal liturgies.
John Allen adds that the Church does not want to diminish its public image, either: “[the Cardinal electors]
won’t want to drag it out too long, risking impressions of gridlock and division.”
He does sense,
however, that the 2013 conclave will be more complicated than the one held in 2005: “I’m
betting on a conclave longer than that one, which was over in four ballots in a
day and a half.”
would place his money on is this: if an American is elected pope, he will have to push back his return-ticket date and
camp out, with many more U.S. journalists joining the party.
“The Vatican will become the White House
beat for the American media, which probably means that I’ll become just another
American vaticanista, rather than being a big fish in a small