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We now know the starting date of the conclave: Tuesday, March 12. And we know that the cardinals will process into the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon, which leaves time for the first ballot that evening.

If the balloting continues for three days without a new pope, the cardinals are to suspend the voting for a maximum of one day – for prayer, discussion and a spiritual pep talk. Then they resume voting, taking additional pauses – again, up to a full day – every seven ballots if there is no outcome.

After about 13 days, or about 34 ballots, if there is no candidate who receives the two-thirds majority needed for election, the cardinals move to runoff ballots between the two highest vote-getters, until a two-thirds majority is reached.

While all that seems fairly straightforward on paper, if the conclave goes more than a few days it may not be clear what’s happening on the inside – at least to the waiting world. For example, it’s doubtful we’ll be told exactly when a “pause for reflection” occurs, and how long it may last.

Theoretically, the only way we’ll know if the cardinals are voting is by watching the Sistine Chapel smokestack.

General congregations winding up

Judging by the list of topics discussed at the general congregations today, it seemed once again that these sessions were all over the map. The lack of focus may explain why the cardinals are unenthusiastic about prolonging them several more days.

Today’s issues included interreligious dialogue, bioethics, modern culture, justice in the world, women in the church, collegiality and governance, and the importance of a positive announcement of the faith.

Unfortunately, these individual interventions are not developed thematically. The format calls for one speech after another, based on the order in which the microphone was requested.

As of today, more than 100 cardinals had spoken during the general congregations.

One order of business today surely raised eyebrows. The cardinals were asked to accept – or not accept – the motives provided by the two absent cardinal-electors. An Indonesian cardinal was unable to attend because of health, so no controversy there.

But the other absentee, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, decided not to come after he was accused of sexual impropriety by three priests and one former priest. He said in a statement that he was afraid his presence would distract from the conclave. The cardinals, we were told today, accepted his absence for “personal” reasons. Although the church’s tradition and its documents consider voting in a conclave a solemn “duty” of cardinals, the prospect of unwanted media attention is apparently a valid excuse nowadays.

The College of Cardinals’ blanket ban on interviews with the press has returned the conclave narrative to its traditional padroni: Italian journalists and their Italian and Roman Curia sources.

On a practical level, the move effectively muzzled U.S. cardinals and sent a signal that the Vatican’s communication culture remains one of back-channel sources, leaks and speculation — not on-the-record press conferences.

Not surprisingly, the Italian papers today – in particular, La Stampa – were chock full of unsourced details from the cardinals’ closed-door general congregation meetings. Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Italian head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, gave a global report on missionary challenges. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the Italian head of the Congregation for Clergy, weighed in with an overview on the priesthood and vocations.

Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini spoke about the need to choose a younger pope with sufficient energy. Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, both Roman Curia officials, talked about the figure and role of “pope emeritus.” Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola went over the five-minute limit in his talk on the nature of the church.

None of this is earth-shaking news. It’s just more than dribbles out of the official Vatican briefings, in which names are never named.

More interesting is that the journalistic narrative is now pitting the reform-minded, exasperated U.S. cardinals against the entrenched Old Guard of the Roman Curia and Italian hierarchy.

Here’s the way the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano set the scene: “The Vatican was not expecting the activism of the American cardinals: that they don’t want to hurry up the process at all cost, that they don’t want to avoid the subject of pedophilia, that they don’t want to skip over the intrigue of Vatileaks, that they don’t want to lock themselves into a conclave and make a mess of it.”

“The reaction of the Curia officials, the cardinals who control the Holy See under the guidance of the chamberlain, Tarcisio Bertone, was not long in arriving: a ban on talking, no press conferences, we’re in charge.”

From the people I’ve spoken with, there’s some truth to all this. There’s also a sense that the general congregations have been drifting along without much focus, that with speech after speech on such a variety of topics, they lack cohesion.

That contrasts with the way the same meetings were chaired eight years ago by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who made a habit of tying themes together and synthesizing interventions at the end of the day.

Certainly, as the cardinals gaze up at the dais, they see the face of the Roman Curia over the last 23 years: Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and secretary of state from 1990-2006, runs the general congregations; at his side is Cardinal Bertone, Benedict’s secretary of state, who as chamberlain has administrative duties during the papal transition.

These two men are reported to have set aside their well-known differences, in part because they recognize that a unified Roman Curia has a much better chance of controlling the conclave’s outcome. No doubt, too, they have been brought closer together by talk of a crisis of governance at the Vatican – these two have been responsible for many of the incidents under discussion.

In the “America vs. the Curia” scenario, it’s inevitable that potential U.S. candidates for the papacy are receiving closer attention. But what began in the Italian press a few weeks ago as almost playful entertainment of the idea of an “American pope” has now taken on a more serious tone.

Today’s headline in Corriere della Sera put it bluntly: “The Americans launch the challenge to elect one of their own.” It includes Canadian Cardinal Ouellet among the group of North American papabili who are supposedly gaining traction.

Sandro Magister, who blogs for the magazine Espresso, makes the case today for Cardinals Dolan or O’Malley: “An American in Rome, Bound for the Chair of Peter.”

Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing consensus in Rome that the Roman Curia’s favorite candidate may be Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Sao Paolo. The church would have “a Brazilian pope,” but one of German descent, who has worked seven years in the Roman Curia, who has dealt with Vatican bank issues and who is trusted by the top officials of the Secretariat of State.

Scherer would be expected to draw a significant number of votes from three groups (some of which overlap): the Roman Curia, which has 41 past or present members in the conclave; European cardinals, who represent more than half the conclave with 60 voting members; and Latin Americans, who have 19 voting cardinals.

At the official Vatican briefing today, we learned that cardinals have still not set a date for the start of the conclave.

The cardinals today heard brief reports on the financial state of the Holy See, from three cardinals who head the Vatican’s budget office, investment and patrimony commission, and governor’s office.

The other 13 cardinals who spoke this morning returned to earlier general themes (the church in the world, the relationship between Roman Curia and bishops) but also touched on ecumenical dialogue and the church’s action on behalf of the poor.

Throughout my career, I’ve wisely refrained from giving advice to popes or the Vatican. I make an exception today, because in the wake of ex-Pope Benedict’s resignation I’m hoping the cardinals give some creative thought to how a pope governs in the modern age.

It’s on the op-ed page of USA Today. I tried to keep it short: Seven Steps for a New Pope.

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