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  • A 'young' pope?

    One of the generally accepted assumptions about the next conclave is that cardinals will be looking for a relatively young and energetic candidate. So it’s worth examining what passes for “young” in the College of Cardinals.

    The average age of the world’s 209 cardinals is 78. Among the 117 cardinals who are under age 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave, the average age is nearly 72; almost two-thirds of the electors are over age 70.

    I decided to make an unscientific tally of the 15 most-mentioned papabili in recent days, and found their average age to be 67. Only one is under age 60 -- Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle.

    Clearly, if the cardinals are looking for someone in the youthful age bracket as, say, Pope John Paul II, who was 58 when elected pope, the field is going to be pretty thin.

    In fact, among cardinal electors, only four others are under age 60: Cardinals Baselios Thottunkal of Trivandrum (India), 53; Ranier Maria Woelki of Berlin, 56; Willem Eijk of the Netherlands, 59; and Reinhard Marx of Munich, 59.

    Looking again at the most-mentioned papabili list, there are five cardinals between age 60-65: Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, 60; New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63; Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, 63; Ghanan Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64; and Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65.

  • A resource for the conclave

    As pope-watchers prepare for the approaching conclave, here’s a great resource written by one of Rome’s true experts on the subject.

    “Conclave: Step by Step Through the Papal Interregnum” was recently revised by Monsignor Charles Burns, a Scottish historian who once worked in the Vatican Archives. It can be downloaded for free here from the Catholic Truth Society.

    Monsignor Burns reviews the rules and seasons the text with his own insights. I love the part where he talks about the possibility of electing someone outside the College of Cardinals and adds:

    “Beware! The last time a non-Cardinal was elected, in 1378, it caused the Great Western Schism, which divided Christendom into rival factions for almost forty years."

    When I bumped into the good monsignor in front of his residence near the Vatican the other day, he was as excited as all of us about Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement that he would resign.

    Like many here, Burns called the pope’s decision a courageous act that will go down in history.


  • The 'Pope of Italy'?

    Pope Benedict's Feb. 11 announcement that he would resign at the end of the month left him two and a half weeks to say goodbye to the church and the world, and to wrap up pending projects of his pontificate.

    It’s been a little surprising, then, to see Benedict’s calendar fill up primarily with encounters with groups and individuals from a single country: Italy.

    A meeting with the clergy of Rome. Individual “ad limina” audiences with bishops of Liguria. An encounter with an Italian charity organization. A private meeting with Italy’s outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti. Another round of “ad limina” meetings, this time with bishops of the Lombard region.

    The pope’s last scheduled meeting with a major public figure will be his Feb. 23 encounter with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

    The pope is reaching out to the broader world through his final general audiences and Sunday blessings. But these, too, tend to be predominantly Italian affairs conducted in the Italian language.

    We all know the pope is bishop of Rome. But often it seems that his role today has turned into “pope of Italy.”

    Vatican City, of course, is surrounded by Italy and there’s a natural crossover factor for any pope, Italian or not. Italian groups and leaders line up continually to see the pope, and they’re usually the ones who fill the basilica and square for papal liturgies.

    But as the world’s cardinals prepare to elect Benedict’s successor, perhaps now is the time to re-examine Italy’s demands on a new pope’s time and energy -- and its influence in the church’s universal mission.

    As non-Italian popes, both John Paul II and Benedict went out of their way to reach out to Italians. In the eyes of many, in fact, Benedict effectively “re-Italianized” the Roman Curia by placing a large number of Italian prelates at or near the top of key Vatican agencies. He has also increased the Italian cardinal count, leaving 28 Italians as eligible voters in the upcoming conclave. 

    But in the age of globalization, does it really make sense to continue a single country’s domination of Vatican affairs? And is it really necessary, as is often argued here in Rome, that a “foreign” pope needs an Italian secretary of state to manage the Roman Curia?

    In view of recent leaks, miscues and mistakes made at the highest level of the Curia -- some of which involved murky Italian business affairs -- one would hope the cardinals will take a fresh look at all this when they begin their meetings in Rome.

  • Lots of noise, few signals in early run-up to conclave

    Last year, Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and the Noise,” argued against over-emphasizing random fluctuations in forecasting outcomes like the U.S. presidential race.

    Papal elections are not presidential elections, of course, but it’s clear that in the run-up to the March conclave we are hearing a lot of noise. It’s a very specific kind of noise -- the chatter of what might be called “the conclave of the media.”

    As papabili buzz on and off the nightly news and “contenders” lists pop up on Web sites, it’s good to remember that most of the voting cardinals have yet to arrive in Rome and few, if any, are talking names with reporters.

    That creates a vacuum, and journalists have been happy to fill it.

    Journalists in the Vatican press officeMonday it was Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi who grabbed the media spotlight. Yesterday the outsider-turned-favorite was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Today it’s Cardinal Luis Tagle’s turn as the candidate of the day, at least in Italian newspapers.

    What the rest of the world needs to know is that little or none of this comes from the 117 cardinals who will be voting in the conclave. Many say they will wait to begin serious consideration of candidates until March, when the College of Cardinals begins daily meetings before being locked into the Sistine Chapel for the vote.

    On Feb. 11, less than an hour after Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement that he would resign Feb. 28, an Italian journalist approached me and said: “Let’s make Cardinal O’Malley pope.” He made the remark with a wink and a smile, but I think he took it as a serious project. Since then, O’Malley’s name has percolated with regularity through the Vaticanista community.

    Another Italian colleague told me last week that he had a couple of key appointments with Vatican cardinals -- not to interview them, but to try and direct them to the proper candidate.

    Italian journalists see themselves as players in a conclave, not just impartial bystanders. And some believe the press may have an impact in the papal selection process, at least in the period leading up to the voting. I remember that after the 2005 conclave, one cardinal remarked that he knew Cardinal Ratzinger was gaining consensus when he read it in the Italian newspapers.

    The mountain of speculation that’s filled the papers and the airwaves in Italy since the pope’s resignation has included scenarios of intrigue, backstabbing and supposed alliances. That prompted Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, to say the other day that he hoped this would not become a “conclave of the media.” He was taking his cue from Pope Benedict, who the day before had contrasted the “real” Second Vatican Council with what he called the false “council of the media.”

    So are there any “signals” out there amid the journalistic noise?

    Here are a couple of recent statements by actual cardinals that seem to lay down markers:

    -- Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, one of few cardinals who can truly be considered a “popemaker” and the one who will announce the new pope to the world, had this interesting exchange yesterday with the French agency I.Media:

         Q: Before his election, Joseph Ratinzger want to make (Curia) reform...

         A: Yes, but the Curia is a huge machine. A younger pope is perhaps needed.

         Q: What should be his age, in your opinion?

         A: The ideal age would be more or less 65 -- even 70 if he is in good form.

         Q: What are the qualities he would need above all?

         A: He would need to have above all the virtue of hope, because we find ourselves in a disillusioned world, a fluid society. He would also need to have clear ideas about the content of the faith.

    -- Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is found on most papabili lists, told me last week that the church’s credibility is a key issue for the new pope, especially in the wake of financial scandals and leaks at the Vatican.

    “Every time this pops up on Italian television, and you have a crook or Mafia member who has kept his money in the Vatican bank, that brings the Vatican down the drain, too. The Vatican has suffered from this kind of situation with business partners -- unsuspectingly perhaps, it is difficult to tell. But certainly the damage it causes is lasting,” Cardinal Turkson said.

    “We need to work on restoration of credibility. And I would put that probably on top of the list for the successor of the Benedict. It’s so important because now that we’re talking about new evangelization, and every pope has consistently talked about witnesses speaking louder than words. The burden is on us to be credible, to be sincere in everything we do.”

  • Early start to conclave may get papal clarification

    Pope Benedict is studying the possibility of issuing a document that would clarify certain issues being raised about the coming conclave, including the possibility of an early start to the papal election.

    The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said today that if the document is issued, it would come before the papal resignation takes effect Feb. 28. Lombardi said he thought the document might address certain ritual questions. He said he didn’t know if the pope would say anything about the starting date of the conclave, but the spokesman left the impression that the pope was aware of the timing issue.

    The Vatican rules say that in preparing for a conclave, the cardinals “must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent.” Experts initially said that meant March 15 was the earliest possible starting date, given that the sede vacante begins Feb. 28. But others say the wording leaves open the possibility that the conclave could begin sooner, as long as all the cardinals were present or accounted for.

  • Cardinal Mahony: The conclave's lightning rod

    What’s being called the “Mahony affair” has taken center stage in Italian press coverage of the upcoming conclave, with expressions of outrage that the Los Angeles cardinal accused of covering up sex abuse by priests would come to Rome for the papal election.

    Cardinal Roger Mahony announced through his blog that he intends to participate in the conclave, just a few weeks after he was removed from “administrative or public duties" as retired archbishop of Los Angeles because of past failures to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

    After a U.S. Catholic lay group urged Mahony to stay home, the popular Italian weekly “Famiglia Cristiana” on Feb. 18 asked online readers whether the cardinal should participate in the conclave. Not surprisingly, the vast majority said no.

    One typical comment: “Cardinal Mahony should not only stay home from the conclave but retire to a life of prayer in a monastery.” Another sarcastically suggested that Mahony be allowed to participate only if he could make his way to Rome by swimming and walking, as a form of penitence.

    “Revolt Against Cardinal Mahony” was the headline in the Rome daily La Repubblica, which quoted Cardinal Velasio De Paolis as saying Mahony should examine his conscience on the matter.

    Most Vatican officials have avoided public comment on Mahony, but privately there is apprehension about what his presence would mean for the conclave. It risks leaving the impression that Mahony has to be hidden away in his home archdiocese, but can fly to Rome and take his seat as a member of the world’s most exclusive club, and help elect the next pope.

    Moreover, Mahony is scheduled to make a deposition Feb. 23 regarding a 30-year-old case of abuse, which could raise new legal questions.

    Church officials and fellow cardinals, however, are equally concerned at the public campaign being brought to bear. The Vatican spokesman earlier this week warned against a “conclave of the media,” and church leaders in Rome are extremely wary of outside pressure affecting the way the conclave works.

    If Mahony is hounded out of the conclave for his mishandling of abuse cases, who might be next? they ask. Several other cardinals who will be voting for the next pope have been criticized by their own faithful for the way they dealt with abuse accusations.

    While most of the cardinals’ deliberations in Rome will be private, the papal transition also features a number of public liturgies. One can imagine news cameras focusing on Cardinal Mahony, and microphones continually thrust in front of other cardinals with the question: “Should Mahony be here?”

    Vatican officials maintain that Cardinal Mahony has the right to participate in the conclave and that -- barring an intervention from Pope Benedict -- it’s his call.

    Note: Cardinal Bernard Law, who left Boston in disgrace in 2002 in the wake of clerical sex abuse revelations, participated in the conclave of 2005. But he had been out of the United States and, in a sense, off the radar after being given a ceremonial position in Rome in 2004.

    When Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was himself accused of sexual misconduct, relinquished all his privileges as archbishop and cardinal in 1998, it was reportedly with the proviso that he would not participate in a conclave. But the issue never came up, as Groer turned 80 the next year and died in 2003.


  • The conclave's 'geography gap'

    The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Cardinals do not have geographical constituencies. And a conclave is not a political convention.

    Now that we've got that out of the way, let's acknowledge the deep geographical imbalances in the conclave that will elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor. There are 117 cardinals eligible to vote, and it is a group dominated by Europeans and North Americans.

    Consider these numbers:

    -- A full 52 percent of the voting-age cardinals are European, despite the fact that Europe today is home to just 24 percent of the church’s total population, and is the only continent where the actual number of Catholics is in decline.

    -- Italy alone has 28 voting cardinals in the conclave, or 24 percent -- more than Africa, Asia and Australia combined, and eight more voters than the last conclave in 2005.

    -- About 35 percent of the voters are active or retired members of the Roman Curia, a remarkably high proportion that has significantly increased since the 2005 conclave.

    -- Latin America, home to 42 percent of the world’s Catholic population, has 19 cardinals among conclave voters, or 16 percent of the total.

    In terms of population, the church’s center of gravity long ago moved from Europe to the south and east, and the church’s biggest growth areas are Africa and Asia.

    Many would argue that this changing dynamic goes beyond simple numbers -- that Catholic communities in developing countries are not only more populous, but also more vibrant, more participatory in the sacraments and more influential in their societies.

    Catholic leaders, including popes, have professed to welcome this transformation from a Eurocentric to a more universal church. But it’s a shift that has barely touched the highest levels of church governance.

    No wonder the College of Cardinals is increasingly seen as the firewall against change in the church. For all the talk about Catholicism’s global expansion, far-flung church communities have relatively little voice when it comes to choosing and advising a pope.

    “The church is not a democracy” is an oft-recited mantra at the Vatican, and no one is seriously suggesting that the College of Cardinals should operate as a kind of representational parliament, or that popes should adhere to geographical quotas when he selects new members.

    But early last year, after yet another batch of new cardinals tilted almost exclusively toward Europe and the Roman Curia, whispered criticism was heard inside and outside the Vatican. Some of it appears to have reached Pope Benedict’s ears: when he named six additional cardinals in November, none were European and five were from the developing world.

    That hadn’t happened in decades, and the pope told a surprised audience that his selections were meant to demonstrate the church’s universality.

  • The papal butler’s “vow of silence”?

    Last Christmas, Pope Benedict pardoned Paolo Gabriele, his former valet who was tried and convicted for leaking confidential documents to the press. The pope’s move seemed like the classic Vatican happy ending to the Vatileaks affair, an act of forgiveness that transcended the revelations of petty conflict in the Roman Curia.

    There’s a postscript, however, and it raises some familiar questions about transparency and secrecy at the Vatican.

    The Italian magazine Panorama reported earlier this month that when the Vatican assigned Gabriele to a position at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Hospital, it was on the condition that he refrain from talking to the press. The magazine said Gabriele signed a commitment “not to give interviews or make statements” in exchange for his new job.

    The impression left by the Panorama article was that the Vatican’s reconciliation effort was, in effect, a stratagem to buy the silence of a man who might have much more to say.

    I spoke with Vatican officials who, not surprisingly, offered a much different take. First, they said Gabriele had not signed such a promise -- at least not yet -- and had not taken up any new employment position.

    Second, they argued that it wouldn’t be so strange if such a promise of silence were eventually asked of Gabriele, or offered by him, in view of the fact that he himself has expressed remorse over leaking the documents and damaging the image of the pope. Gabriele’s “repentance” was a key reason for the pope’s pardon and for the Vatican offer of a new job, and if he was being honest, it would be hard to imagine him now sidelining as a guest on talk shows or writing a tell-all book.

    Vatican officials are well aware that Gabriele will receive attractive financial offers to tell his story, if he hasn’t already.

    One reason the Vatican would view a “vow of silence” as normal is that all Roman Curia employees are expected to protect the secrecy of their work affairs. The General Regulations of the Roman Curia, in fact, stipulate that employees take an oath promising to maintain secrecy -- not just on important “pontifical” matters but on everything handled by their department.

    In the Vatican’s view, this is not a “gag order” but simply recognition that employment at the Holy See is not like any other job. As Pope John Paul II wrote when he promulgated his version of the regulations, the Roman Curia has no equivalent in civil society, and requires a sense of communion with the mission of the supreme pontiff.

    In theory, Vatican employees are not only supposed to avoid taking documents and notes out of the office, but are forbidden from meeting “outsiders” in the office or even talking to non-authorized personnel about their work without expressed permission from superiors. Fortunately for journalists, most Vatican officials routinely bend those rules.

  • Decoding the Vatican -- a new blog

    Inaugurating a blog is a little like launching an empty cruise ship, in the hope that passengers will be stepping on board with every post.

    This blog will offer commentary, news and insights on Vatican and Catholic Church affairs. It’s a different format for me, and an exciting one. For nearly 30 years, I covered the Vatican for Catholic News Service in Rome, writing thousands of news stories and many analytical pieces, trying never to stray outside the margins of journalistic objectivity.

    Bloggers have more freedom -- freedom to make judgments, raise questions, express opinions, link to other points of view and engage in discussion. In short, to make some waves. I welcome the opportunity to do all of that, and in the process add a reasonable and discerning voice to the religious blogosphere.

    This blog’s launch coincides with publication of my book, The Vatican Diaries, a behind-the-scenes account of life inside the Vatican walls. One of the advance reviews said my book would “appeal to readers seeking understanding of or connection with the Catholic Church’s heart” and “is recommended for anyone who would like to challenge their own notions and perceptions of the Vatican.”

    I hope to keep that same provocative spirit alive in my blog. To any and all readers, welcome aboard.

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