By Austen Ivereigh
After the drama of Pope Benedict XVI's shock resignation and his almost liturgical withdrawal by helicopter Feb. 28, the cardinals gathered in Rome to elect his successor are sending strong signals that they need a period of calm before voting his successor.
Until they are all here – the remaining two arrive today and tomorrow – the cardinals won't decide the date of the conclave. But even when they do, it’s not obvious that it will be soon. The cardinals are just settling into their daily pre-conclave meetings, known as the general congregations.
They are a chance for the whole College of Cardinals, both electors and those older than 80, to discuss and vote on interregnum business, give speeches (there have been 51 so far) about the needs of the Church and the world, and quiz each other about the relative merits of the papabili – the dozen or so cardinals considered to have the requisite combination of human gifts, skills and experience to be pope.
From tomorrow, they will be meeting twice a day. Because so many of the 153 cardinals wish to speak, they are being invited to limit the speeches to five minutes.
Speaking yesterday to journalists at the North-American College, Cardinals Seán O’Malley of Boston and Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said they needed time to gather information and to pray about this weightiest of decisions. "It takes as long as it takes," Cardinal DiNardo said.
Cardinal O’Malley pointed out that if they don’t spend enough time in the general congregations, there was a risk the conclave itself would be prolonged. Before going into the conclave, he said, the cardinals needed to know whom to vote for.
Because the cardinals' deliberations are confidential, the challenge for the Holy See Press Office is what to feed the global media camped out in Rome. More than 4,000 journalists are accredited to cover the papal transition (in addition to the 600 regular Vatican reporters, the vaticanisti). They come from 65 countries and speak 24 languages – irrefutable evidence of the global significance of the Catholic Church.
In 2005, when the cardinals decided to stop talking to the media after the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the information flow came to an abrupt halt. This time, at least, the Press Office provides hour-long daily sede vacante briefings. But Father Federico Lombardi can refer in only the vaguest terms to what the cardinals have been talking about.
Hence the popularity, these past few days, of the press conferences given by the U.S. cardinals over at the American seminary in Rome, the North American College or NAC. I went to yesterday's with Cardinals O’Malley and DiNardo to find 20 camera crews from all the major networks and more than 100 journalists. The contrast with the rest of the College – who simply cannot match the organizational capacity and media savvy of the U.S. cardinals – is stark: While the other cardinals stay silent, the U.S. cardinals have virtually taken over the media coverage of the papal transition.
As in 2005, this has caused tension, especially with the Italians. So it was no surprise when it was announced that this afternoon’s press conference with Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Francis George of Chicago were suddenly cancelled.
Father Lombardi, respecting the confidentiality of the congregations, refused to be drawn on who made the decision and why. But U.S. bishops’ spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh announced in an email to reporters that the College of Cardinals agreed to a media blackout because of fears that press conferences would make it harder for the cardinals to deliberate in private.
There was a similar clash of views and expectations in 2005, when the American cardinals wanted to carry on talking to the press up until the conclave, but were persuaded to stop.
The Americans take the view that having the global media and the cardinals in Rome is a fantastic opportunity to communicate with 70 million people back home, while the spotlight is on the Church.
The problem is that the Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans don't take the same view, in part because their media aren't as powerful or as present as those of the United States.
So when they say the American media blitz is a distraction from the reflective, prayerful process of discernment necessary for the conclave, they might be expressing a genuine fear.
Then again, they might be just a tad jealous.