Church in Transition
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Posted April 17, 2005 at 7:00 a.m. CDT

Getting to know you
Cardinals with little connection to Rome
have missed out on informal gatherings

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Tonight the 115 cardinals who will elect the next pope will move into the Domus Sanctae Marthae, marking a sort of early start to their isolation during the conclave, and all indications are they can use the time. Several cardinals have told NCR in recent days that the situation is still quite fluid, with no clear consensus on candidates, and this in part because many cardinals simply have not had the opportunity to take part in the informal discussions that generally unfold in the week between the pope’s funeral and the first ballot inside the Sistine Chapel.

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The reality, according to these sources, is that there appears to be an inner core of cardinals, comprised of Italians, veterans of the Roman Curia, and other cardinals well-connected in Rome, who have been meeting over lunches, dinners, and informal get-togethers, presumably groping towards a sense of who they might be able to support as the next pope.

Another group of cardinals, however, including non-Italian speakers and pastoral figures from distant regions who do not know Rome or their brother cardinals very well, have not been much engaged in these conversations. Hence one “x factor” heading into the balloting is whether these “second-tier” cardinals will simply join whatever consensus seems to be emerging, or whether they will steer the voting in unexpected directions. Since many of these more disengaged cardinals seem to be from the global South, it’s possible that their swing votes could bring an interest geographic dimension to the election of the next pope.

“People who know each other have been getting together,” one cardinal said. “But larger groups have only had maybe one or two chances to talk with each other, to get a sense of what they need to know.”

A cardinal, speaking to NCR on background April 17, said that the situation remained unclear in terms of who might emerge as the next pope. He said the cardinals were still struggling with to get to know each other, beyond the brief biographical material that was distributed at the beginning of the General Congregation meetings.

He compared the situation to the situation described in the Acts of the Apostles, when the 11 apostles drew lots to replace Judas, relying on chance and divine inspiration rather than informed deliberations.

“The Holy Spirit is going to have to work overtime,” he joked.

He also compared his expectations of the early round of voting to what happens when religious orders hold chapter meetings to elect their superiors.

“You look for a straw vote to indicate directions,” he said. “I’m not very sure what will happen at the moment. I wouldn’t exclude anybody.”

Yesterday the veil of secrecy surrounding the conclave was lifted just for an instant, and members of the press were allowed inside the Apostolic Palace, to make the brief walk from outside the Pauline Chapel across the Sala Regia to the Sistine Chapel, were the election of the next pope will take place. We saw the 12 tables with groups of nine or 11 chairs where the cardinals will sit, on an elevated platform with blocking devices underneath which allegedly will impede any communication with cell phones or other electronic devices. (Maybe the system wasn’t fully operational yet, but I can report that I was able to make a cell phone call to my wife from about two feet away from where one group of cardinals will sit).

We also saw the stove, or rather stoves, where the ballots will be burned and chemicals added to produce the black or white smoke, signifying a unsuccessful or successful vote. It’s a new system, where the ballots are burned in one stove while another generates compressed air to send the smoke billowing up the chimney, which is now clearly visible from the outside.

Speaking April 17, a cardinal told NCR that they hope was still for a conclave that does not go on very long, because the cardinals do not want to give the world the impression that the pope has been elected by a faction. Pope John XXIII once said that the pope has to be pope both for those with their foot on the brake, and those with their foot on the gas. In other words, he has to be everybody’s pope, not just the leader of one party or the other. A long, divided conclave risks that impression.

Given the dynamics that appear to be taking shape, however, with a large chunk of cardinals entering the conclave without a clear sense of who the leading candidates may be or who they plan to vote for, it may still be the case that we have to wait a few days to see those stoves churn out white smoke.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is


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