Cardinals mull new pope over coffee
Princes of the Church mix, mingle at pre-conclave meetings05 March, 13:38
Cardinals prayed, swore secrecy, performed all formal procedures and briefings. There were 13 cardinals who spoke extemporaneously. Most importantly, there was the coffee break. The relevance of the coffee break for cardinals gathered in the congregation preceding the conclave in which a new pope will be chosen is neither irrelevant nor irreverent - especially if the experience of the synods and the Council before them is remembered.
This informal occasion during the morning, in the first congregation, lasted over half an hour and took place in the Paul VI Audience Hall with The Resurrection by Pericle Fazzini as background. The monumental statue is the backdrop for the weekly general audiences of pontiffs.
The College of Cardinals, described by some as the world's most exclusive club, has 207 members, 117 of whom are eligible to vote for the new pope, although two have already announced they will not participate. One is Indonesian, Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja, 78, archbishop emeritus of Jakarta who will not attend due to his poor health. The other, British Cardinal Keith O'Brien, has been ruled out after he resigned as archbishop of Scotland over allegations of sexual misconduct. He recently admitted to inappropriate sexual conduct in the 1980s with a number of seminarists.
Apart from cardinals within the Curia - the administrative body that runs the Holy See - who know each other and meet on a regular basis, the others hail from different countries, socioeconomic and ecclesiastical contexts. Some are not acquainted with the 'Roman' scenario nor with each other. And this is not only true for the new cardinals who were appointed by Benedict in November last year, but for the whole college. So the coffee break becomes a free, spontaneous time in congregations - already conceived as an occasion for dialogue and an exchange of opinions on the Church's situation - to discuss feelings, impressions, concerns and broach the most interesting issues to understand if priorities coincide and are equally important for all.
The issues to be discussed by cardinals, even informally, are numerous. One is the often-cited dossier on the Vatileaks scandal last year in which papal documents leaked to the media alleged corruption in the Vatican and infighting over the management of its bank, at the centre of a number of scandals in the past. Other pressing matters concern the persecution of Christians worldwide, the reform of the Curia invoked by many, the relationship with other religions and Christian confessions.
And a pending question is what will happen to the dossier regarding the Lefebvrites and the canonization process of John Paul II and Pius XII.
On Monday morning and afternoon the top concern for cardinals in the congregations was allegedly how to prepare for the conclave, according to the earliest rumours. Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, also bound to secrecy, conceded that the meeting of the congregation and exchanges during the coffee break were constructive. The Vatican spokesman recalled an "atmosphere of great serenity, constructive" and "a desire for an active and clear-minded participation". As for the coffee break, he stressed the importance of contacts and exchanges which are not relegated only to the assembly. "Getting a sense" of the other cardinals can be important, at least so that no one finds himself in the situation of Cardinal Mario Casariego of Guatemala in 1978. When he heard the name "Wojtyla" being read during the conclave which would elect Poland's Karol Wojtyla as pontiff, he reportedly asked Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, "Who is this Cardinal Bottiglia?" the Italian word for bottle. "Now you know who Bottiglia is," John Paul II allegedly told an extremely embarrassed Casariego when the cardinal kissed his hand after he was elected pontiff.