Looking ahead to the Conclave

It’s still just a guess, but the conclave of cardinals to elect the successor to Benedict XVI could open at the beginning of the second week of March.

This date would allow a seemly amount of time for Pope Benedict to withdraw to Castel Gandolfo (he leaves on 28 February); for the College of Cardinals to convene; for the voting to take place (let’s say a week if all goes well); and for the new pope to be installed in time for Palm Sunday – it falls on 24 March this year – which is the beginning of the holy week that leads up to Easter, the most important date in the Christian calendar.

The director of the Vatican’s press office has suggested sometime between 15-19 March could be the date, but might that be a bit tight to ensure a pope in time for Palm Sunday, unless of course the voting and organisation is very speedy. Palm Sunday, let alone Easter, without a pope would be a very strange event indeed.

But whatever the exact dates, the campaign to succeed Pope Benedict has already begun. “Campaign” is not the usual word (and not one traditionalists will like) that is associated with the election of the new pope. But these are unusual times and this will be an unusual event.

A month’s notice is an untraditionally long period (at least in the modern history of the papacy) between the end of one pontificate and the beginning of the next. From the death of Pope John Paul II on 2 April 2005 to the election of Pope Benedict XVI on 19 April there were only 17 days.

The cardinals now have a much longer period ahead of them free from the rules of enclosure and secrecy that govern the conclave in which to examine the candidates for the new pope. Although only 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be voting, all 208 of them will probably be keen to discuss who is the right man for the job. A couple have already voiced their opinions to the media, with one, the 82-year-old US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on the record as saying that the Church is ready for a pope from the developing world.

It would of course be naïve to think that consultation did not happen in the past. Media speculation went on for years before the death of John Paul II, and during his long illness cardinals had plenty of time to discuss and plan a successor, probably also with a fair amount of input from the dying pope himself. Looking back there is little doubt that Joseph Ratzinger’s position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), together with his closeness to the dying pope, placed him as a front-runner from the start.

The signs are however that until the cardinals are shut in behind the Sistine Chapel doors this is going to be an intense period of open consultation (many might prefer the word “reflection”). The next month will see the most debated, most media savvy and most unpredictable election of modern times.

What cardinal will not at least confer with his bishops in the weeks ahead; perhaps even listen to his faithful back home? What country, or continent, would not like to “claim” the next pope? What cardinal will not be open to what he reads, hears and sees in the media?

It would however be naïve to think that the influence of the media is all one way. Many of the princes of the Church are now savvy users of modern communications, as able as government ministers to command prime time on radio and television. Many bishops and archbishops now have communications’ departments, media advisers and many have media training themselves. If Pope Benedict could use Twitter why not the cardinals? And what’s to stop supporters of one papabile or another opening their own Facebook page?

Traditionalists will say that cardinals would never stoop so low. But as more than one prelate has observed, “We are now navigating in uncharted waters.”

A common saying has it that the man who goes into the conclave as pope comes out as just a cardinal. But this is now an age of sudden happenings and unexpected events behind the Vatican walls. While it once took decades, if not centuries, to make decisions, Pope Benedict has just thrown one tradition to the winds with what seems like amazing speed. For outsiders it is now possible at least to speculate that almost anything could happen next.

Mary Wilsey