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  • John Thavis

I guess it was too good to continue.

U.S. cardinals abruptly canceled their planned briefing today, and no further briefings were scheduled.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who had coordinated the U.S. press encounters, said in an email: “Concern was expressed in the General Congregation about leaks of confidential proceedings reportedin Italian newspapers. As a precaution, the cardinals have agreed not to do interviews.”

In other words, because some anonymous cardinals fed Italian reporters a few details about their discussions, a gag order now applies to all the cardinals.

The U.S. briefings, which typically featured two American cardinals fielding questions in 30-minute sessions, had become a welcome daily ritual for journalists in Rome who are trying to cover the pre-conclave meetings that began this week.

It should be noted that the U.S. cardinals, like all the rest, have taken an oath to maintain secrecy regarding conclave matters. But they have given reporters at least an outline of the discussions, if not precise content, and have been willing to answer general questions on issues not directly related to the conclave.

It’s more than a little ironic that the Americans, who have been candid about the limits on what they could say even as they met the press, are now forced to retreat behind a wall of silence.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, who holds his own briefings each day (and like U.S. cardinals, provides general and practical information without getting into the substance of the cardinals’ meetings), was asked if the Vatican had intervened to put an end to the American press encounters.

He said it was not up to him to tell cardinals what they can and cannot say to the press. But he added that the conclave was not a congress or a synod, in which abundant information is given. On the contrary, he said, this process has “a tradition of confidentiality in order to protect the freedom of members of the college.”

Therefore, he said he was not surprised that the rest of the cardinals may have reacted to the U.S. availability to the press – especially as the cardinals deepened their discussions this week. He noted that no other national group had decided to give the kind of briefings as the Americans were doing.

Father Lombardi said that to date, 51 cardinals had spoken in the general congregations, touching on the following main topics: the church and the world, “new evangelization,” the Holy See and Roman Curia departments and relations with bishops.

What’s also beginning to emerge, he said, was a profile of the qualities and tasks for the next pope.

Those wanting more information, I guess, should read the Italian papers and try to sift the speculation from the good stuff. Today’s Italian take: the cardinals are fighting about the start date of the conclave – which still has to be decided; the Roman Curia is under attack from many cardinals, who are asking for deep reforms; several cardinals are upset at the paltry information they’re being given by three cardinals who authored a confidential report on Vatican leaks and corruption.

We learned today that the cardinals meeting ahead of the conclave focused this morning on three general topics: the Roman Curia and its relationship with bishops around the world, renewal in light of the Second Vatican Council and the demands of “new evangelization” in various cultural contexts.

Although those are ambiguous phrases, they’re a clue to what’s on the cardinals’ minds. Clearly, governance of the Roman Curia has already been raised and will continue to be discussed, in light of various leaks and scandals that have come to light in recent years.

Italian newspapers reported this morning that some cardinals, including Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, have asked for information from the three cardinals who prepared a report on the factors that led to the “Vatileaks” scandal. According to these reports, the answers given by the three cardinals were not very precise or helpful.

Ex-Pope Benedict met with the three cardinals a few days before his resignation and declared that their report would remain secret for the time being, and left only for his successor to read. That may well explain their reluctance to share specific content from the report.

At a press briefing today, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was asked about Roman Curia issues.

“There is certainly a lot of reflection going on throughout the Catholic world about the governance of the church, about how to improve it and make the Holy Father’s ministry more effective and supported by the bureaucracy of the Holy See,” he said.

“Vatileaks grabbed headlines for a long time, but I don’t know how important those issues are in terms of the work of the conclave. I feel confident the cardinals will share with each other the information that is really germane and important for us to know as we try and make this important decision,” he said.

Afternoon sessions scrapped

One somewhat surprising development came when cardinals decided not to meet twice daily, as had been expected, but to gather only in morning sessions – at least for the next few days.

No explanation was given, but some cardinals felt the very structured sessions of the general congregations, if held twice a day, simply took up too much time and left little chance for the equally important informal meetings, conversations and dinners – which is where cardinals feel more free to talk about papal candidates.

Meanwhile, the cardinals have scheduled an afternoon prayer session for Wednesday afternoon in St. Peter’s Basilica. All the cardinals and the public are invited.

Sistine Chapel closed

The Vatican is closing the Sistine Chapel to visitors as of this afternoon, a sure sign that a conclave is coming. Construction to host the structures needed in the conclave will begin today, too.

Who will be the last cardinal to the conclave?

Incredible as it may seem, more than three weeks after ex-Pope Benedict announced he would retire Feb. 28, there are still some cardinal no-shows in Rome.

Their absence is delaying a vote on the starting date for the conclave, since the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, apparently believes that decision should be made once all voting-age cardinals have ample time to arrive.

As of midday on March 5, the second day of the cardinals’ pre-conclave meetings, these cardinals were still reportedly making their way to Rome: Cardinals John Tong Hon of Hong Kong (who was said to be on a Lenten retreat), Coptic Cardinal Antonios Naguib of Egypt, German Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Vietnamese Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, and Polish Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi downplayed speculation about their absence, saying it was “completely normal” and that the Vatican was in contact with the missing cardinals. It seemed most, if not all, were expected in Rome by Wednesday.

Telegram to Benedict

The cardinals sent a telegram today to “His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus,” thanking him for his “untiring work” as pope and assuring him of their prayers.

U.S. cardinals are getting rave reviews from journalists for their availability during the “general congregations” leading up to the conclave.

In contrast to their brethren from the rest of the world, the Americans are holding well-organized daily press briefings at North American College, just up the hill from the Vatican press office.

Chaired by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. bishops’ conference, these sessions typically feature two U.S. cardinals who field questions for a half-hour. The relatively rapid-fire Q and A in English is a welcome complement to the lengthy, multi-lingual briefings offered by non-cardinals at the Vatican.

One of Rome’s leading newspapers, Il Messaggero, said the American cardinals had clearly learned the value of transparency in dealing with the press.

“It’s been the Americans who are giving lessons in communication and in conveying a unity of vision,” the newspaper said.

“The Italians aren’t even thinking about this, maybe because they’re too divided and too resistant to new frontiers. They prefer to slip away, waving nervously and avoiding contact. The Germans, Spanish, French (with a few exceptions) and even the Latin Americans are doing the same,” the newspaper said.

After today’s briefing with Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, another session was announced for Wednesday featuring Cardinal George and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. A French reporter in the room was heard to exclaim: “God bless America!” (UPDATE: Now we’re told it will be Cardinals George and McCarrick on Wednesday, not Dolan.)

The U.S. cardinals are, of course, walking a fine line. Like other cardinals, they took an oath to preserve secrecy over all matters relating to the conclave.

Nevertheless, there appears to be an understanding that cardinals can talk to the press throughout the pre-conclave meetings, as long as they don’t divulge too many details about the conclave itself. Since much of these discussion will relate to general church issues and not judgments on papabili, that leaves room for some freedom of expression.

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