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  • John Thavis

Conclave Day 1: Praying and politicking

People often imagine a conclave as a political convention in red robes, where cardinals may pray to the Holy Spirit but do their real business in back-room maneuvers.

Judging from my conversations with cardinals over the last two weeks, the “campaigning” aspect of a conclave is exaggerated in popular imagination. But that doesn’t mean the cardinals don’t talk, lobby and carefully calculate the chances of their favorite candidate.

From the moment it begins this evening, you could probably divide the conclave into “praying” and “politicking” moments.

The praying takes place in the Sistine Chapel, where the voting procedure is so formal and so solemn that the cardinals don’t even talk to each other. There’s a reason the cardinals will file into the chapel in choir dress – they are, in a sense, participating in a liturgy.

For that reason, there’s no chit-chat among the cardinal electors, and certainly no chance to ruminate on vote tallies.

But that changes as soon as the cardinals exit the Sistine and get on the mini-buses to the Domus Sanctae Marthae, their residence inside Vatican City. They begin to talk, to reflect on the balloting and, yes, even to promote their candidates to brother cardinals.

There’s a reason the conclave generally begins with a single ballot in an evening session. The first ballot, which may find 15 or more cardinals receiving votes, gives the lay of the land, and the cardinals have some numbers to work with as they head off to dinner.

These meals at the Domus are extremely important. There’s no assigned seating, and for many cardinals it’s the first real chance they have to converse at length with prelates from other countries and regions. And once the dining room clears out, smaller and more private conversations continue into the night.

The conclave rules are pretty adamant about what is and is not allowed in these conversations. What’s forbidden (under penalty of excommunication) is making any pact or promise that would oblige a cardinal to vote for a particular candidate – or deny his vote to a candidate. Also banned are any deals that would promise certain appointments or courses of action if a particular cardinal is elected pope.

For example, it would break the rules to ask Cardinal X to support your candidate, and promise in return that as pope, he would make Cardinal X his secretary of state.

One Italian papabile, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, was reported to have addressed that issue head-on when he told fellow cardinals that, whether or not he’s considered a papal contender, he didn’t want to hear anyone approach him with a deal or a bargain.

What the rules do allow, however, is “the exchange of views concerning the election.” That’s broad enough to permit the kind of promotion, plugs and endorsements that circulate quietly in the Domus. And the cardinals feel a duty to do this kind of talking, because without it the conclave could easily stall.

From an initial group of 15 or more vote-getters, the second and third ballots the next morning generally thin the field down to seven or eight candidates. Lunch on Day 2 of a conclave is typically a crucial moment, when momentum is assessed carefully and when votes are shifted to front-runners.

If a conclave goes into Day 3 and beyond, it’s a sign that original favorites may lack the support needed for reaching the necessary two-thirds majority. At that point, the cardinals may turn to other candidates – and keep praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

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