Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Cardinals head to conclave to elect pope for troubled Church
By Crispian Balmer and Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic cardinals chanted and prayed for divine guidance as they filed towards the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to start a conclave to elect a pope who will face one of the most difficult periods in the Church's history.
The 115 red-hatted and red-caped cardinals gathered in the Pauline Chapel and walked in procession along the frescoed halls of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace into the Sistine, where they could remain closeted for several days of balloting.
"The entire Church, united with us in prayer, asks for the grace of the Holy Spirit at this moment so that we elect a worthy shepherd for the entire flock of Christ," a cardinal said in Latin as the procession began.
They then chanted what is known as the "litany of saints", asking more than 150 saints by name for help in making their choice of who should succeed Benedict XVI, who has withdrawn from public life after his surprise abdication last month.
The cardinals may well decide to cast a first ballot as early as Tuesday night after the doors of the chapel, one of the world's greatest art treasures, are closed and the cardinals are sequestered inside to conduct their secret discussions.
If they vote, the first outcome is likely to be inconclusive because there is no frontrunner to succeed Benedict, who became the first pope in centuries to step down, saying he was not strong enough at 85 to confront the woes of a Church whose 1.2 billion members look to Rome for leadership.
Smoke - white for a new pontiff, black after an inconclusive vote - would emerge from the chimney on the Sistine's roof if a ballot were held.
The balloting for the next pontiff will take place under the gaze of the divine presence represented through Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar.
The solemn afternoon procession into the Sistine followed a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica where Angelo Sodano, an Italian who is dean of the cardinals, called for unity in the Church, which has been riven with intrigue and scandal, and urged everyone to work with the next pope.
"My brothers, let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart," Sodano said in his homily, receiving warm applause when he thanked "the beloved and venerable" Benedict.
The former pontiff, who retired on February 28, has excluded himself from public life and was not present on Tuesday.
No clear favourite has emerged to take the helm of the Church, with some prelates calling for a strong manager to control the much criticised Vatican bureaucracy, while others want a powerful pastor to combat growing secularism.
Italy's Angelo Scola and Brazil's Odilo Scherer are spoken of as possible frontrunners. The former would return the papacy to Italy after 35 years in the hands of Poland's John Paul II and the German Benedict; Scherer would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III in the 8th century.
However, a host of other candidates from numerous nations have also been mentioned as "papabili" - potential popes - including U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, Canada's Marc Ouellet and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri.
The cardinals will only emerge from their seclusion once they have chosen the 266th pontiff in the 2,000-year history of the Church, which is beset by sex abuse scandals, bureaucratic infighting, financial difficulties and the rise of secularism.
Many Catholics are looking to see positive changes.
"He must be a great pastor with a big heart, and also have the capacity to confront the Church's problems, which are very great," said Maria Dasdores Paz, a Brazilian nun who attended the Mass in Rome. "Every day there seem to be more."
In the past month, Britain's only cardinal elector excused himself from the conclave and apologised for sexual misconduct.
Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera told Italy's La Stampa newspaper there were differing views about who should be the next pontiff, with some wanting an academic, others seeking someone close to the people, and others a good manager.
He was asked if the conclave could drag on: "I do not think it will be long," he said. "We will come to an agreement very quickly."
The average length of the last nine conclaves was just over three days and none went on for more than five.
Signalling the divisions in Catholic ranks, Italian newspapers reported on Tuesday an open clash between prelates in a pre-conclave meeting on Monday.
The newspapers said the Vatican hierarchy's number two under Benedict, Tarcisio Bertone, had accused Brazil's Joao Braz de Aviz of leaking critical comments to the media.
Aviz retorted to loud applause that the chatter was coming from the Curia, the Vatican's central administration, which has been criticised for failing to prevent a string of mishaps, including leaks, during Benedict's troubled, eight-year reign.
All the prelates in the Sistine Chapel were appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, and the next pontiff will almost certainly pursue their fierce defence of traditional moral teachings.
But Benedict and John Paul were criticised for failing to reform the Curia, and some churchmen believe the next pope must be a good chief executive or at least put a robust management team in place under him.
Vatican insiders say Scola, who has managed two big Italian dioceses, might be best placed to understand the Byzantine politics of the Vatican administration - of which he has not been a part - and be able to introduce swift reform.
The still influential Curia is said by the same insiders to back Scherer, who worked in the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops for seven years before later leading Brazil's Sao Paolo diocese - the largest in a country with the biggest national Catholic community.
With only 24 percent of Catholics living in Europe, pressure is growing to choose a pontiff from elsewhere in the world who would bring a different perspective.
Latin American cardinals might worry more about poverty and the rise of evangelical churches than questions of materialism and sexual abuse that dominate in the West, while the growth of Islam is a major concern for the Church in Africa and Asia.
The cardinals are expected to hold their first vote late on Tuesday afternoon - which is almost certain to be inconclusive - before retiring to a Vatican guesthouse for the night.
They hold four ballots a day from Wednesday until one man has won a two-thirds majority - or 77 votes. Black smoke from a makeshift chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel will signify no one has been elected, while white smoke and the pealing of the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will announce the arrival of a new pontiff.
As in mediaeval times, the cardinals will be banned from communicating with the outside world. The Vatican has taken high-tech measures to ensure secrecy in the 21st century, including electronic jamming devices to prevent eavesdropping.
(Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary and Tom Heneghan; Editing by Barry Moody and Alastair Macdonald)
Factbox - Who, what, where, how of Catholic conclaves
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel masterpieces frame papal vote