Conclave Day 1: Opening Thoughts on Papal Election

The Cardinals prayed together this morning for guidance and that the Holy Spirit be with them as they gather to elect a new Pope.

What will happen today is fairly straightforward. The Cardinals will take their oath of not merely secrecy, but also one that says they have not be coerced in their vote. That the person they vote for is the person they truly believe is called to lead the church.

Many of the Cardinals say that this first vote begins to show what everyone is thinking. You get a “read of the room” as to how the Cardinals are considering things. The big question that gets answered with this first vote is “Who do we trust?”

So here’s some thoughts from me about who might be picked and moreover why. I’ll simply talk about three or four trends and then cite some individual names that go along with that trend.

1) The Italian Contingent: The Italians have the largest number of votes (28 of the 115). But that’s still far short of the 77 needs for a two-thirds majority. So while they could produce the first trend, the question is can the Italian block even agree on a candidate amongst themselves? The early conversations show wide divisions on how the Vatican should be governed, but also shows many people believe that reform is necessary. If an Italian is selected, they need to have big numbers early. So unless these men have had many conversations about which one of them they are going to put forward I see three possible situations occurring:

a) Cardinal Angelo Scola has widely been listed as the Papal front runner because he’s Italian but has been a Vatican outsider as the Archbishop of Milan. He could garner a good number of ballots if the Italians have floated his name as the best candidate from among their group and could take an early lead if not an insurmountable one on that first ballot. He probably won’t be elected on the first shot, but if he can get to 50 votes or even 40, that might be enough to tip the scales in his favor.

b) Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who has been the head of the Italian Bishop’s Conference is a pragmatic centrist. And is very well liked amongst his own people. The way I look at this is that the Italians already elected him once to an office as the President of the Bishop’s Conference and he’s done a good job there. So it shouldn’t be too hard for him to gain some support here either.

c) The Italians may very well be active in forming a coalition for another candidate from outside of their own country and I think three names top that list. One is Cardinal Mark Ouellet, from Quebec who is respected as the head of the Congregation for Bishops and is seen as a conservative who can clean things up in the Curia. He knows six languages and is popular with the Latin Americans because he taught in Latin America for some time. So there could be a Latino/Italian bloc that coalesces on Ouellet for Pope.
A second candidate is Cardinal Odilio Scherer from Brazil which is a country with the largest amount of Catholics in it. He also worked at the Prefect of Bishops but also has the pastoral experience that some of the candidates lack. He is well-liked and could be picked easily.

2) The Reform of the Curia: So the Roman Curia needs serious overhaul in the mind of many of the prelates in the conclave. And the Curia is filled with Italians. So while they have the most votes, the question is will anyone else vote with them, and can they even agree themselves?

One of the things that stands out in my mind is that this past week when the Americans set up really great press briefings that were candid and really explained the thought process of the whole selection of the Pope, many of the Italian Cardinals seemed to resent the Americans. Some of the Italian Cardinals (or at least one) began to leak information in the Italian media that was supposed to be private. The Americans talked in more generalities. But then the crackdown: the Cardinals got together and told everyone to shut up. The Americans deeply resented this. It was like they were being punished for something that the Italians did. This could have deep implications for the Americans now looking for a candidate from outside Italy.
That said, I doubt it would be an American. Scherer, who we talked about could be one possibility. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Germany was the kingmaker last time and is well-known amongst many Americans, especially amongst any who may have spent time in Germany studying or sent their priests to study there. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (pronounced TAHG-Lay) from the Pilippines is the only Asian Candidate that I think can receive widespread support and he’s my personal favorite as a choice. He may be too young but now that retirement is an option, the notion of age may indeed no longer be a huge factor. He could be a good “compromise” choice as well should no candidates garner a strong majority. If this goes to a fourth ballot, look for him to emerge.

3) Outside Rome: Africa and Latin America have been floated as strong possibilities this time. Cardinal Peter Turkson has been atop many lists of Papibile, but I doubt he will have much supoort. He’s fallen just short of campaigning for the job. One person who I see as a serious wildcard contender is the Nigerian Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan. Nigeria is a place that Catholicism has truly grown in with a “problem” of too many seminarians. I studied at Fordham with Nigerian priests and they spoke well of him as someone who pushed for Democratic reform and who has a heart for the poor of his land. A longshot perhaps, but one never knows.
On the Latin American side, we’ve already talked about Scherer. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ is a conservative Jesuit who is the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina and is part-Italian. He’s well liked and gave Pope Benedict a run for his money last time as the candidate who supposedly (from a leaked Cardinal’s diary) had the second most votes. He’s older now at 76, but could still garner some support. Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriquez Maradiaga has falled off most lists of Papabilli, but he has been touted before. He’s from Honduras and the President of the Latin American Bishop’s conference. I’ve heard him speak before and he’s amazing though most think he’s too progressive to garner enough support.

Finally from the good old USA, I will maintain that Cardinal Dolan is the only one who has a real chance. For the past week I’ve been hearing Cardinal O’Malley’s name mentioned as a possible candidate as well, but I’m doubtful that they’ll elect anyone who has Boston as a link, even if he did help the Boston Archdiocese heal from the sex abuse scandal. I also don’t think they will elect someone from a religious order and Cardinal Sean, as he likes to be called, is a Capuchin Franciscan. Dolan meanwhile is well-liked for his brash conservatism. He led the North American College in Rome so he has friends in high places and he has a grasp of the media. The question is whether some find him too media-centric. He could very well play a big role as a kingmaker this time out in forming a coalition for a particular candidate.

I am really rooting for Cardinal Tagle from Manilla in the Philippines. And would like to see him select Cardinal Ouellet as the secretary of state. He’d need someone from the “inside” who knows where the bodies are buried to help him gain control of the administrative parts of the job, but he would be very good at the more “external” role. It leads me to believe that perhaps they should elect two people–Co-Popes. One a good administrator and the other a good speaker a evangelizer.

Two final notes: Could they simply elect Pope Benedict again? I’ve actually heard that as a possibility. I doubt it would happen, but it’s an interesting possibility.

I also think that this could be a long conclave and perhaps we should root for that. These men might well be in need of some time outside of their normal role to really consider what the church needs, what they’ve done wrong and right with their jobs and what needs to happen to really lead the church in this millennium.

That said, we need to pray. That we might be united in prayer with them today in hoping that the Holy Spirit can get them out of their own wants and desires and to think about what the church needs and to see where God is calling them this week.

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  1. Tagle is problematic for what he has said about sexual abuse and abusers. He comes from a highly clerical culture that has not yet come to understand the importance of transparency in regard to this issue. Do a search and see what he has said for yourself.


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