VATICAN CITY » Cardinals have set Tuesday as the start date for the conclave to elect the next pope, a milestone in this unusual papal transition and an indication that even without an obvious front-runner, the cardinals have a fairly good idea of who best among them can lead the Catholic Church and tackle its many problems.
The conclave date was set this afternoon during a vote by the College of Cardinals who have been meeting all week to discuss the church’s problems and priorities and the qualities a new pope must possess.
Tuesday will begin with a morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, followed by a solemn procession into the Sistine Chapel and the first round of secret balloting in the afternoon.
Only one vote is held the first afternoon. If black smoke is sent snaking out of the chapel chimney to indicate there is no immediate victor, the cardinals will retire for the day. They will return Wednesday for two rounds of balloting in the morning, two rounds in the afternoon until a pope has been chosen.
In the past 100 years, no conclave has lasted longer than five days.
That said, there doesn’t appear to be a front-runner in this election for a successor to the retired Benedict XVI, and the past week of deliberations has exposed sharp divisions among cardinals about some of the pressing problems facing the church, including of governance within the Holy See itself.
U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, considered a papal contender, said in a blog post today that most of the discussions in the closed-door meetings covered preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, tending to Catholic schools and hospitals, protecting families and the unborn, supporting priests "and getting more of them!"
"Those are the ‘big issues,’" he wrote. "You may find that hard to believe, since the ‘word on the street’ is that all we talk about is corruption in the Vatican, sexual abuse, money. Do these topics come up? Yes! Do they dominate? No!"
Early in the week, the Americans had been pressing for more time to get to the bottom of the level of dysfunction and corruption in the Holy See’s governance that was exposed by the leaks of papal documents last year. But by Thursday afternoon, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tweeted that the discussions were "reaching a conclusion" and that a mood of "excitement" was taking hold.
Vatican-based cardinals had been angling for a speedy end to the discussions, perhaps to limit the amount of dirty laundry being aired.
A Tuesday start date could be read as something of a compromise. Monday had been seen as an obvious choice to start the conclave to ensure a pope would be elected and installed by Sunday, March 17, the last Sunday before Holy Week begins.
American and some German cardinals had argued that the time for discernment should come during the pre-conclave meetings, when there is more time for discussion and information-gathering.
Once the conclave begins, there is actually very little time for discussion since the proceedings are conducted in an atmosphere of silent prayer. The Americans had argued for more consultation time so the conclave itself doesn’t drag on.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pre-conclave meetings had served to give cardinals a chance to discuss the "profile, characteristics, qualities and talents" a future pope must have.
"Obviously the cardinals must arrive at this moment with all the information that is useful to make a judgment on such an important issue," he said. "The preparation is absolutely fundamental."
According to Vatican analysts and even some cardinals themselves, the list of papabili, or those considered to have the stuff to be pope, remains relatively unchanged from when Benedict XVI first announced he would resign Feb. 28, kick-starting the papal transition. But some Italian media have speculated that with governance such a key issue in this conclave, the cardinals might also be considering an informal pope-secretary of state "ticket."
The Vatican secretary of state is primarily responsible for running the Holy See, but it’s not an elected job like the pope. It’s a papal appointment, and will be a very closely watched papal appointment this time around given the stakes.
Also today, the cardinals formally agreed to exempt two of their voting-age colleagues from the conclave who in past weeks had signaled they wouldn’t come: Cardinal Julius Darmaatjadja, emeritus archbishop of Jakarta, who is ill, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned last week after admitting to inappropriate sexual misconduct.
That formality brings the number of cardinal electors to 115; two thirds of which — or 77 votes — is required for victory. Benedict in 2007 changed the conclave rules to keep the two-thirds requirement throughout the voting process after Pope John Paul II decreed that after about 12 days of inconclusive balloting the threshold could switch to a simple majority.
By reverting back to the traditional two-thirds requirement, Benedict was apparently aiming to ensure a consensus candidate emerges quickly and ruling out the possibility that cardinals might hold out until the simple majority kicks in to push through their candidate. His decision might prove prescient, given the apparent lack of a front-runner in this conclave.
Lombardi said a few items of business remain outstanding, including drawing lots for rooms at the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel, where the cardinals will be sequestered once the conclave begins.
He showed a video today of the room in which the new pope will spend his first night as pontiff; it features a bed with a heavy, dark wood headboard featuring a carved image of Christ’s face. There is also a sitting area and a study.
The pope is expected to stay there for a few weeks even after the election, since the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace must be renovated. The apartment was sealed Feb. 28, just after Benedict resigned, and cannot be reopened until the new pope formally takes possession of it.
Lombardi explained that after an eight-year papacy, certain plumbing and maintenance work that had been put off must be carried out — work that cannot begin, however, until the seal on the doors is broken.