It will be letting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics down if this conclave does not choose a pontiff who breathes new life into the institution.
“Is this your first conclave?”, my fellow journalists ask me as they mill about waiting for holy smoke to appear over St Peter’s Square, sounding as if they have attended every such gathering going back over a thousand years, while I clearly have not.
As a matter if fact, this IS my first conclave. And when those 115 cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel (“cum clave” means “with a key” in Latin – I never thought studying the subject would come in use) it has the potential to be a very exciting conclave indeed.
The last one in 2005 had an air of predictability about it. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the ultimate Vatican insider, may not have presumed to the top job, but many others certainly presumed on his behalf. He was elected in less than 24 hours.
Nobody in the Vatican would admit they might have made a mistake. After all, it is God’s will who is chosen as leader of his church, even if the Michelangelo frescoes adorning the election are the work of man, while the voters are human of course.
But Pope Benedict’s resignation spoke of his own exhaustion with the task. “Choose someone younger” was clearly this rather sad-looking 85 year old theologian’s subtext as he flew off by helicopter into the Roman sunset last month.
The Pope Emeritus still pulls many strings, though. After all, Benedict chose 67 of the 115 Princes of the church who will be casting ballots this week.
Yet despite the overwhelming sense of continuity, the feeling that on issues such as abortion and contraception and the celibacy of the priesthood not much will really change, here is the chance, at last, to make history by choosing the first non-European Pope since Gregory, a Syrian, died on the job in the year 741.
Cardinals won’t necessarily think in these geographical terms. They will perhaps look for holiness first, the ability to evangelise globally second (presumably including a fluency in English or Spanish) and thirdly, and perhaps no less important, a zeal to reform the scandal-ridden church government or “Curia” here in Rome.
The most talked about candidates are Archbishops Angelo Scola from Milan and Odilio Scherer from Sao Paulo in Brazil. Though just to make things confusing, many of the Italian cardinals in the Vatican are said to favour the Brazilian, so this is not quite the old Europe vs new world battle it might first appear.
It would rather please newspaper headline writers if the Brazilians took the papacy, just as they already have the Olympics and the World Cup and this would complete the hat trick, though if it is charisma you are looking for, neither Brazil nor Italy may be the right place to look.
Cast your eye further afield, to the Philippines or Sri Lanka, and you will find cardinals of striking John Paul-like charisma and reported humility. Not perhaps the right people to head a global corporation, but an “outsider” could come through to win the papacy if one of the so called favourites fails to garner enough votes early on.
Several cardinals many of us have heard precious little of might qualify as “Pababile” (“Pope-able”) if this conclave is looking for some sort of celestial spring clean of the rock upon which St Peter built his church.
“It is out with the old, and in with the old,” I wrote from the Vatican on the day Benedict held his last papal audience.
Yes, the next Pope will be an old man who has never married or had children; but surely it will be letting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics down if this conclave does not choose a Pontiff who breathes new life into the institution.
As one Vatican watcher put it, the world’s biggest church is searching for “Jesus Christ, but with an MBA”.
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