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  • John Thavis

The conclave’s missing dimension

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.

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