Cardinals head to conclave to elect new pope

Roman Catholic cardinals chanted and prayed for divine guidance in the Sistine Chapel yesterday as they prepared for a conclave to elect a pope who will face one of the most difficult periods in the Church’s history.
The 115 cardinals who will be responsible for electing the new pope.  Net Photo.
The 115 cardinals who will be responsible for electing the new pope. Net Photo.

Roman Catholic cardinals chanted and prayed for divine guidance in the Sistine Chapel yesterday as they prepared for 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asking more than 150 saints by name for help in making their choice of who should succeed Benedict XVI, who has withdrawn from public life after his surprise abdication last month.

Once inside the Sistine they took their places along the walls of the frescoed chapel and sang a hymn to the Holy Spirit, asking it to “visit our minds” during the election process.

They then read an oath in Latin, promising to abide by all the rules of the conclave, including not to reveal anything that goes on during the conclave.

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.

“My brothers, let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart,” Angelo Sodano, an Italian who is dean of the cardinals, 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 yesterday.

No clear favorite has emerged to take the helm of the Church, with some prelates calling for a strong manager to control the much criticized 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.

Many choices

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.

The average length of the last nine conclaves was just over three days and none went on for more than five.

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 defense of traditional moral teachings.

But Benedict and John Paul were criticized 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.

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 were expected to hold their first vote late yestersday afternoon - before retiring to a Vatican guesthouse for the night.

They will hold four ballots a day from today until one man has won a two-thirds majority - or 77 votes.

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