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After participating in the first “general congregation” of cardinals to prepare for the conclave, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made some interesting points in a briefing for reporters.

First, he said, the cardinals are in no hurry to begin the conclave.

“Someone quoted St. Thomas of Aquinas, who said you should be slow in deliberation and quick in decision making,” he said. “So, decision-making is the conclave, and deliberation is the general congregations.”

“I think that caught the sense of everyone there, that we need to take the time necessary,” he said.

The cardinals must begin the conclave by March 20, but they are free to move the start date up, and some had suggested that March 11 might not be too early to file into the Sistine Chapel and begin voting. From what Cardinal George and others said today, a later date now looks more likely.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington added that it was his understanding that before setting the conclave date, all cardinal electors must have arrived in Rome. That may not happen for another day or two.

Cardinal George also said he thought clergy sex abuse would be “an important issue in the minds and heart of the cardinals” as they choose a new pope. He called sex abuse a “terrible wound on the body of the church,” and said the zero tolerance policy — removal of all priest abusers from ministry — must continued to be accepted as the universal law of the church. Although new cases of abuse are much rarer, victims are still hurting and “the next pope has to be aware of this,” he said.

Asked about the situation of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who announced he would not participate in the conclave and acknowledged inappropriate sexual conduct in the 1980s, Cardinal George said it was a “tragic moment for him.”

“Certainly the tragic moment was when he was guilty of misconduct, and the consequences played themselves out now,” he said.

Cardinal George participated in the conclave of 2005, when the general congregations were presided over by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was eventually elected as Pope Benedict. This time, the general congregations are being run by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals.

Asked to compare the styles of the two men, Cardinal George said that while Cardinal Ratzinger was a theologian, and tended to synthesize the discussions, Cardinal Sodano was a canonist, and had a clear, direct approach in giving instructions and presenting the issues. “Both ways are effective,” he added.

Cardinal Sodano explained to the cardinals the rather tricky balancing act between swearing secrecy over conclave matters — which they all did this morning — and talking with the press in coming days. Essentially, it seems, cardinals will be free to talk to reporters as long as they’re not too particular about content and don’t start naming papal contenders.

As Cardinal George remarked, “They’ve decided perhaps that it’s better to talk to the press rather than not talk to the press.”

The College of Cardinals today kicked off the pre-conclave sessions known as “general congregations,” but have yet to set a date for the start of the conclave.

One of their first decisions was to write a message to retired Pope Benedict. The text was being worked on, and presumably would have to be approved before it’s sent.

The cardinals took care of housekeeping details, then had a 30-minute coffee break. In the morning’s final 45 minutes, 13 cardinals asked to speak on various matters, focusing mainly on the upcoming calendar of events – no doubt the date of the conclave was at the top of the list. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, was waiting for things to “mature” before putting that to a vote.

One interesting topic was whether the cardinals would continue to meet in both morning and afternoon sessions, as had more or less been announced. Some cardinals think that if the general congregations take up the cardinals’ full day, they’ll have little time for the informal encounters in which papal candidacies really take shape.

Today’s briefing in the Vatican press office began with a short film of the opening session, shot by the Vatican Television Center. It showed cardinals entering the synod hall (I suppose no significance should be given to the fact that Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer was the first to appear on the screen), chatting among themselves and going through the briefcase-packets that were handed them.

The film ended with a shot of Cardinal Bernard Law joining in a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

Presiding over the general congregations from a dais in the front of the room was Cardinal Sodano, assisted by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the chamberlain, and Bishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the college.

The cardinals were seated according to a complex cardinal seniority system. This morning, 142 cardinals attended the session; of that number, 103 were cardinal-electors (under age 80). The Vatican spokesman said there were 12 other electors expected to arrive in the next day or two.

One elector who won’t be attending is Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who yesterday acknowledged inappropriate sexual behavior dating back to the 1980s. Father Lombardi said he was not sure if the College of Cardinals would discuss Cardinal O’Brien’s absence or be asked to formally approve his reasons for not attending the conclave.

Throughout these meetings, the cardinals will have at their disposal simultaneous translation in five languages: Italian, English, Spanish, French and German. The translators working in the synod hall have taken oaths of secrecy.

One of the first (and time-consuming) tasks was for each cardinal to come forward, place his hand on a Bible and take an oath, promising to follow the conclave rules and to maintain secrecy over “all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff.”

Three cardinals were chosen by lot to form a three-day advisory council to Cardinal Sodano: Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe and Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode. New members will be chosen on Thursday.

This afternoon, the first meditation will be delivered to the cardinals by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household. It’s expected to be a spiritual talk, not a policy speech.

Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who had contested accusations of sexual impropriety in February, today acknowledged that “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me.”

O’Brien decided not to attend the March conclave after a newspaper reported that three priests and one former priest had accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior when he was a seminary rector in the 1980s.

Here is the statement issued today by Cardinal O’Brien:

“In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them.

However, I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.

To those I have offended, I apologise and ask forgiveness.

To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologise.

I will now spend the rest of my life in retirement. I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland.”

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