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  • John Thavis

Conclave opens March 12 … and then?

We now know the starting date of the conclave: Tuesday, March 12. And we know that the cardinals will process into the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon, which leaves time for the first ballot that evening.

If the balloting continues for three days without a new pope, the cardinals are to suspend the voting for a maximum of one day – for prayer, discussion and a spiritual pep talk. Then they resume voting, taking additional pauses – again, up to a full day – every seven ballots if there is no outcome.

After about 13 days, or about 34 ballots, if there is no candidate who receives the two-thirds majority needed for election, the cardinals move to runoff ballots between the two highest vote-getters, until a two-thirds majority is reached.

While all that seems fairly straightforward on paper, if the conclave goes more than a few days it may not be clear what’s happening on the inside – at least to the waiting world. For example, it’s doubtful we’ll be told exactly when a “pause for reflection” occurs, and how long it may last.

Theoretically, the only way we’ll know if the cardinals are voting is by watching the Sistine Chapel smokestack.

General congregations winding up

Judging by the list of topics discussed at the general congregations today, it seemed once again that these sessions were all over the map. The lack of focus may explain why the cardinals are unenthusiastic about prolonging them several more days.

Today’s issues included interreligious dialogue, bioethics, modern culture, justice in the world, women in the church, collegiality and governance, and the importance of a positive announcement of the faith.

Unfortunately, these individual interventions are not developed thematically. The format calls for one speech after another, based on the order in which the microphone was requested.

As of today, more than 100 cardinals had spoken during the general congregations.

One order of business today surely raised eyebrows. The cardinals were asked to accept – or not accept – the motives provided by the two absent cardinal-electors. An Indonesian cardinal was unable to attend because of health, so no controversy there.

But the other absentee, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, decided not to come after he was accused of sexual impropriety by three priests and one former priest. He said in a statement that he was afraid his presence would distract from the conclave. The cardinals, we were told today, accepted his absence for “personal” reasons. Although the church’s tradition and its documents consider voting in a conclave a solemn “duty” of cardinals, the prospect of unwanted media attention is apparently a valid excuse nowadays.

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