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  • John Thavis

The cardinals open their 'general congregations'

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.

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