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Keys to the conclave: Making sense of the papal election as the doors to the Sistine Chapel shut

Cardinals, in red, attend a Mass for the

Cardinals, in red, attend a Mass for the election of a new pope celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano inside St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican. (Mar. 12, 2013) (Credit: AP)

Now that the doors to the Sistine Chapel are closed and the actual voting process has begun, everybody who isn’t one of the 115 electors in the Sistine Chapel now has exactly one source as to what’s happening inside: a newly installed chimney on the roof. Nothing you hear from now on will be factual, until French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran steps out on a balcony and announces: “Habemus papam,” Latin for “We have a pope.” Until then, habemus nihil. We have nothing in the way of reliable news about the next pope.

The youngest reporter hanging around St. Peter’s Square, desperately searching for a story, and the world’s oldest cardinal, excluded from the balloting because only those under 80 can actually vote, now have exactly the same access to the conclave’s inner workings. By the way, in case you’re curious about the oldest cardinal, or anything else about today’s cardinals, a quick way to find out is to go to a website maintained by Salvador Miranda, a retired librarian at Florida International University in Miami. He’s still editing, updating and freshening up this labor-of-love resource, after all these years. Here’s the link.

If you click on Catalogs in his table of contents, you’ll get a table of lists, including cardinals by date of birth and cardinals by country. Miranda lists the oldest cardinal as Ersilio Tonini of Italy, born in July 20, 1914. So he’s nearly 99. He was already over 80 when he became a cardinal. That made him ineligible to vote in the only conclave that has taken place since he received his scarlet zucchetto, the balloting in 2005 that chose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI.


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Many of the over-80 cardinals did participate in the meetings before the conclave began. So they’d have some idea which way things were moving before the doors to the Sistine closed. But right now, they’re as clueless as the rest of us as to what’s happening from ballot to ballot. So, let us begin our waiting-for-white-smoke vigil with one indisputable mathematical fact:

Divide the number of electors (115) by the number of Catholics in the world (roughly 1.2 billion now), and you get .00000009583. That’s the percentage of the world’s Catholics actually now voting on the next pope. Now, compare that to 100. That’s the percentage of members of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville who were eligible to vote for their new leadership team in what they call their Chapter of Elections. All they had to do was show up at the required number of meetings leading up to the balloting this past weekend. Not all of the 437 remaining Long Island members of the congregation actually voted, but more than half of them did. And they clearly knew what they wanted. They chose Sister Mary Pat Neylon of Molloy College as their new prioress on the first ballot.

We now know that there's no first-ballot pope today. Nor will we ever see a papal election as broadly representative of the universal church as the Dominican Chapter of Elections was representative of the congregation. In fact, in a church of 1.2 billion members, we’ll never see one of those zeros disappear from the percentage. Still, expanding the electorate for future conclaves is still a good idea, and including laypeople—especially women—in that electorate is an even better idea.

That’s a long way off, though. For right now, we have the wait for Cardinal Tauran to have his brief moment on the world stage, announcing the next pope. Meanwhile, we’ll have to be content with musings.

For those who prefer a reverent, traditional, noncontroversial take on the proceedings, you might try Rorate Coeli website. Here’s a sample by a blogger named Dr. John Rao: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2013/03/conclave-reports-by-dr-john-rao-ii.html

The same site also contains the text of the homily at the Mass this morning, delivered by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals. He’s over 80 and ineligible to vote. But here’s his homily: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2013/03/homily-of-mass-pro-eligendo-romano.html

For a more newsy, more progressive coverage, try the National Catholic Reporter website. Here’s a link to a piece called Pencil Preaching, reflections on the Scripture readings from today’s Mass: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/mass-and-readings-new-era-new-pope

Commonweal, the lay-run journal of opinion, has a smart and lively blog. Here’s their Interregnum Report from yesterday: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=23953

And keep an eye on Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia blog, here: http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com

And follow the letters from Robert Moyhihan, founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican, here: http://themoynihanletters.com

Finally, try La Stampa’s Vatican Insider, here: http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/

Tags: vatican , conclave , college of cardinals , sistine chapel , pope , rome , catholic church , white smoke

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