Voting in the Sistine Chapel, with all the accompanying drama and historical resonance, overshadows, in the popular perception of the papal transition, the period preceding it, when the world’s cardinals gather daily to take the temperature of the world, the Church and each other. These “general congregations” are vital for shaping the way the votes will go once the conclave itself begins, writes Austen Ivereigh (pictured) in The Tablet.
What happens in the Sistine Chapel itself is more like a retreat, or a liturgy, than a discussion: the cardinals sit on tiered rows, conversing briefly with their neighbours, or saying Rosaries – but the focus is on the voting itself. So, too, are the conversations over lunch and dinner back in the Vatican residence where they stay during the voting, the Casa Santa Marta: what matters is the voting maths.
During the period of the general congregations, on the other hand, the College of Cardinals meets as a body – both electors and non-voting members (aged over 80) – each morning. But just as important are the dinners and receptions, usually in language groups, in the national colleges.
In 2005, for example, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor hosted a gathering of the English-speaking cardinals in the Irish College, and a smaller, “European intelligentsia” dinner at the English College attended by, among others, Cardinals Martini, Danneels and Kasper.
The formal congregations begin as soon as the see is vacant, and not all cardinals need to be present. In 2005, there were 13 such daily meetings from 9 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. They take place in the Synod Hall, which looks like a university auditorium, with a presider’s chair and seats arranged theatre-style.
Cardinals are given four-minute slots and get buzzed if they go over (but some over-eighties were given leeway, leading to complaints that the congregations were like a long-winded synod).
The early congregations deal with legal and practical issues: it takes two days, for example, to read through the rules of the sede vacante period; the date for the start of the conclave is agreed; and issues relating to the death of the Pope – not relevant, of course, this time – are discussed: in the second (October) conclave of 1978, a major topic was whether to conduct an autopsy on the body of John Paul I in order to quieten the swirling rumours about how he died (after seeking medical opinion, they decided against).
In 2005, much of the discussion in the congregations over the five days preceding the funeral of John Paul II were to do with the management of that unprecedented global event.
There are also debates about regulations: in the first (August) conclave of 1978, the cardinals agreed to restrict the voting in the conclave to the ballot only (it was technically still possible to elect a pope by “acclamation” or “compromise”) but went on to reject an application from over-80 cardinals, now banned from the conclave, to be allowed to vote, on the grounds that only a new pope had the authority to reverse Paul VI’s new rules.
This highlights an important point about the College of Cardinals during the interregnum: it governs the Church at this time, but does not have the legislative authority of the See of St Peter; its legal power is circumscribed by the rules of the interregnum established by the last Pope – which explains why, earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI felt he needed to issue a motu proprio allowing the interregnum to be shortened if a majority of the cardinals so decide.
FULL STORY Selecting a pope - the process (Tablet)