Vatican struggles to shift focus from O'Brien scandal to cardinals' talks
Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Nigeria talks to a tourist in St Peter's Square in Rome yesterday. Preparations for electing a new pope began in earnest yesterday as the college of cardinals opened daily talks. photograph: reuters
The countdown to the conclave that will elect a successor to Roman Pontiff Emeritus Benedict XVI began in earnest in the Vatican yesterday when 103 of the 115 cardinal electors who will vote in the Sistine Chapel met for the first of their pre-conclave “Congregazioni Generali”.
These meetings represent the real pontifical talking shop, where the cardinals will hammer out a vision of the challenges faced by the Catholic Church, and in the process hope to identify a candidate capable of dealing with those challenges. Not for nothing the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Tim Dolan yesterday told Italian daily Corriere Della Sera “We’re going to try to wrap this up quickly . . . This week of meetings will be very important, I want to talk with all my fellow cardinals, to meet them all . . . Then after this week’s labours, we’ll do it [elect a new pope] quickly.”
Judging by yesterday’ two “congregation” sessions, Cardinal Dolan’s hopes for a quick conclave may have been a little optimistic. One of the first decisions needed was on the frequency of these meetings, with some cardinals already asking if it was necessary to have two sessions a day.
The uncomfortable shadows of two men not present hung over the first day. Both Benedict and Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien, in their very different ways, made themselves felt.
At his daily briefing, senior Holy See spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi was asked about Cardinal O’Brien who is not attending the conclave but who on Sunday issued a statement confessing that he had been involved in gay “sexual misconduct” with three priests and one ex-priest. Asked about newspaper reports that a fifth person was involved , Fr Lombardi declined to comment.
Scottish sources have told the London Times that this fifth person lodged a formal complaint about Cardinal O’Brien directly to the Holy See, probably the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, last October.
Cardinal O’Brien was then summoned to Rome, where he met Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, and a leading candidate for the papacy. All of this happened five months before Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation, which was announced by the Vatican last week.
Asked about these reports, Fr Lombardi said: “We are here to talk about today’s congregation of the cardinals. We can’t spend all week talking about Cardinal O’Brien. We have already told you all we know . . . We’ve nothing else to say.”
Message to Benedict
The Cardinals yesterday decided to send the pontiff emeritus a message of “affection and gratitude for his service to the church”. For the last three weeks, the Holy See has been adamant that Benedict will have no influence over the choice of his successor. Yet yesterday’s decision would suggest that many of the cardinals still have him on their minds. As for the timing of the conclave, the picture remains cloudy.
The fact that 103 of the 115 elector cardinals were in attendance yesterday might suggest that the conclave will be brought forward from its scheduled date of March 15th to March 10th or 11th. However, this is by no means certain since a number of cardinals are reluctant to be rushed into a conclave ahead of time.