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It can’t be easy to cast that first ballot in a conclave, and by all accounts cardinals in Rome are showing due diligence as they research papal candidates.

They rely, first of all, on the impressions formed in personal encounters they may have had with the men considered papabili. Then they consider past events – mostly in Rome – where leading cardinals have spoken or somehow weighed in over the years.

And, as Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said this week, they are “using the Internet a lot.” Yes, cardinals are Googling each other, and could it really be otherwise in this day and age?

But there’s an aspect that’s often missing from this rapid round of vetting and appraisal, one that should be crucial to the choice of the next pope: the pastoral dimension.

For all their research and discussion, cardinals have a very hard time gauging how a papabile gets along in his home diocese — how successful he’s been in energizing the church at the local level, how many bridges he’s been able to build with the larger society and how effective he is when interacting with his own faithful.

That’s a pretty big blind spot when it comes to choosing a pope, especially when a perennial requisite is that the next pontiff be a “pastoral” figure.

The fact is, most papal contenders are assessed when cardinals’ paths cross in Rome: at synods of bishops, at consistories and, to a smaller degree, at conferences and meetings sponsored by various Vatican agencies.

Cardinals at these venues become well-known mainly by giving speeches or delivering papers. These are rather dry exercises, and it explains why even some leading papabili are considered “good on paper” but unknown quantities when it comes to motivating and guiding their flock.

Cardinals are generally not in the habit of dropping into the home dioceses of papal candidates to watch them in action. Yet this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of pastoral leadership. It’s easy to come to Rome and give a speech; it’s much harder to respond to challenges by Catholics and clergy, explain Catholic teaching to a skeptical society or rebuild credibility in the wake of the sex abuse scandals.

This “missing dimension” should weigh on the minds of cardinals as they gather in Rome, and prompt some additional research — at least more in-depth consultation with each region’s electors.

Of the 117 potential cardinal-electors, 63 are active resident archbishops, in dioceses populated by more than 130 million Catholics. Among this group are at least 10 cardinals being considered for the papacy. In the calculus of papal qualities, their role as pastors should be part of the equation.

It looks like next Monday is going to mark a showdown on the transparency issue in the run-up to the conclave.

That’s the day cardinals begin their twice-daily “general congregations,” meetings that will provide a forum for discussion of church priorities and offer cardinals a chance to size up potential papal candidates.

It’s also the day of the first scheduled briefing on the general congregations, for the hundreds of reporters who are in Rome for the papal transition. The type of information provided to journalists on Monday will probably set the tone for coming days.

Sources today said Vatican communications officials expect to furnish at least generic summaries of the main themes covered in the cardinals’ conversations — but without naming names. In other words, we may be told, for example, that the subject of the church’s relations with Islam drew some strong proposals, but we won’t be told who made them.

Likewise, the cardinals are expected to be told by the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, to be very careful in talking with reporters and others about the content of their meetings, and to avoid identifying individual speakers. This would, of course, make it more difficult to identify protagonists (and potential candidates).

If history is any guide, U.S. cardinals will probably follow the rules to the letter, while others — particularly Italians — may take a more flexible approach.

All the cardinals are free to speak in the general congregations, including those over the age of 80. There are 207 cardinals in all, 117 of voting age.

Sodano summons the cardinals

The Vatican released the letter send out today by Cardinal Sodano, summoning the cardinals to Rome for the general congregations and the conclave.

From the wording of the letter, it seems Cardinal Sodano is willing to wait until all voting-age cardinals are present or accounted for before deciding a date for the start of the conclave. That could mean it will be several more days before we know when the actual voting begins, not necessarily on Monday.

We were assured that in addition to snail mail, the letter was also faxed and emailed to cardinals.

The pope’s first night as ’emeritus’

Although reporters weren’t really expecting it, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi briefed them today on what Benedict did in the hours following his abdication last night. For one thing, the ex-pope sat down with his secretary to watch TV news reports on his resignation — and apparently they were both pleased at the depth of coverage. Lombardi, in fact, thanked journalists for the generally excellent presentation of what he called an “intense and emotional” event.

The retired pope took a walk through ceremonial rooms of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, where he’s living for a couple of months before moving into a monastery inside the Vatican. According to his secretary, Benedict slept well and celebrated Mass this morning.

Benedict was expected to spend some time each day praying his breviary, walking in the gardens of the villa, playing the piano and reading. He brought a number of theology and history books with him, in particular a volume titled, “Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics” (typical light reading for Benedict.) He was also taking time to read the many messages he’s received from people all over the world.

What’s unusual here is that the spokesman is continuing to give information about the ex-pope, even though Benedict has entered what he has called a “hidden” life. It will be interesting to see whether news about Benedict will slowly fade from these briefings.

World premiere – sealing the papal apartments

The Vatican today showed reporters a four-minute film showing how the papal chamberlain, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, sealed the papal apartment following the pope’s resignation. Carrying a “ferula,” a scepter symbolizing his limited authority during the interregnum, Bertone taped shut the private elevator door leading to the papal quarters and then stamped a “sede vacante” seal with a little machine.

To tell the truth, the tape looked like glorified masking tape, and the scene drew laughs in the Vatican press office.

At the main apartment door, Bertone locked it, wrapped a long red ribbon through the handles and then used a hot-wax gun to mark it with the seal.

A few hours before his resignation, Pope Benedict sought to reassure cardinals and the rest of the church on two important points.

First, he said that the church is a “living reality” that can transform itself and adapt to modern times without changing its fundamental identity, which is found in Christ. The message here was that while papal resignation marks a shift in the office of the papacy, it does not mark a break with the church’s core mission and values.

Second, Benedict, in the clearest words possible, pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to the next pope. Although no one expects Benedict to interfere in any way with the ministry of his successor, this was a line that probably needed to be pronounced so that no one has any doubts, and so that any question of split allegiances will be avoided in the future.

The pope spoke to more than 130 cardinals and dozens of Roman Curia officials who gathered in the Vatican’s ornate Clementine Hall to say goodbye, about nine hours before his resignation was to take affect. Some of the cardinals whispered in the pope’s ear as they came up for individual greetings, others handed him notes and a few posed afterward for a photo with the departing pontiff.

Addressing the pope briefly at the start of the ceremony, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, appeared to be sending some not-so-subtle signals about recent criticism of the Roman Curia. He underlined the pope’s recent words of appreciation for the Curia’s efforts over the last eight years, quoting the pontiff as praising the “great competence, affection, love and faith” of his Curia officials.

Over the last two weeks, commentators and even some cardinals have described the Roman Curia as part of the burden that weighed on Pope Benedict, pointing to recent episodes of mismanagement, leaks and power struggles in some Vatican quarters. In some accounts, the pope has been described as frustrated and disappointed by the mistakes of top aides, and alarmed at malfeasance inside Vatican walls.

Pope Benedict himself does not seem to be buying into that narrative. Yesterday, in a farewell address to the faithful, he went out of his way to praise the work of the Roman Curia, and said that despite some “rough waters” he looked back on his pontificate with a sense of joy and accomplishment.

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