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  • John Thavis

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.

  • John Thavis

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.

  • John Thavis

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.

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