The month of March is crucial for the Catholic Church as more than 100 cardinals gather in the Vatican City to elect a new head of the papacy, to fill the vacuum created by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI February 28
| By Olu Ojewale | Mar. 11, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
IT IS perhaps the most advertised vacancy in the world. But unlike the conventional job, this vacancy is the exclusive preserve of a group of cardinals to fill. As from March 1, members of the College of Cardinals are expected to assemble in the Vatican City and be lodged in the Casa Di Santa Marta, a $20 million hotel-style residence, where they would stay until a new Pope has been elected.
Pope Benedict XVI recently signed a new law to allow the cardinals to begin the process of electing a Pope early instead of waiting for the traditional 15 days after the death of the former Pope. Benedict had reasoned that having the conclave early, would allow the new Pope to be sworn-in by March 17 and hold the all-important mass of March 24, (Palm Sunday), which ushers in the holy week.
Benedict himself had caused the need for electing a new Pope when he announced his resignation February 11, saying he would step down on February 28. Analysts say that would give him the rare opportunity of influencing the election of his successor, even though he is past the age of being an elector (only cardinals who are below 80 years old are eligible to vote).
Ahead of the conclave, a number of cardinals have been tipped by some bookmakers to emerge as the new Pope. They are Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada. Until press time, Ouellet was the leading frontrunner.
Arinze, 80, is the most senior cardinal from Nigeria. He has been in the Vatican for more than 25 years, and was once the world’s youngest bishop. Analysts say if Benedict, 85, could give up the post he is supposed to hold unto until his death, could cite old age for his resignation, they wonder how much strength Arinze would have at his age to perform effectively.
At 64, Turkson has age on his side. But he does not seem to have the experience of being in the system for a long time. He was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace only four years ago by Pope Benedict. Turkson was reported to have caused a controversy last year when he showed a screened video at an international meeting of bishops on the rise of Islam in Europe.
The leading candidate, Ouellet, 68, is the Vatican’s main staff director. But the problem is that he has not shown enough interest in the position. Ouellet has variously been quoted as saying that being a Pontiff “would be a nightmare,” and that a Pope’s duties “are perhaps not very enviable,” and described responsibilities of a pope as “crushing.”
If none of these so-called frontrunners emerges as the new Pope, it would not be a surprise either. There are many eligible others around the world, including Nigerian-Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, 75, retired archbishop of Lagos, and Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja. Although the votes of the 118 eligible cardinals are the determinant factor, the Holy Spirit is believed to hold a very important role in determining the eventual winner.
But some terrestrial things such as age, experience, personality, nationality (if not colour of the skin) as well as issues relating to doctrine, also come in to play in the choice of the person to be elected as the Pope. Analysts are not ruling out international politics either, as reports indicate that Italians are seriously scheming to get the seat back for their own person.
In any case, the congregation of cardinals that would elect the new Pope stay behind the closed doors of the Vatican’s famous Sistine Chapel, completely isolated from the outside world. Insiders said that the first ballot could be held on the first afternoon of the conclave, immediately after morning mass. Thereafter, the conclave would hold two ballots in the morning and two ballots in the afternoon until a Pope eventually emerged.
After every round of voting, the tradition dictates that the ballots are bound together and burnt in a special oven made for the purpose inside the chapel. The smoke rising from the chimney normally signals to the expectant faithfuls the outcome of the voting session. If the smoke is black, with the aid of a chemical compound burning along with the ballots, it means that no candidate has achieved the two-thirds majority needed to win. Then, another round of balloting would take place and if the smoke is white, it means that a new Pope has been elected.
There is also the fear among some watchers of the Vatican that the new pope may not be his own man for at least as long as the Pope Emeritus (as Benedict would now be called) remains alive and living in the Vatican City, as he plans to do. Analysts say some believers who may be unhappy with the future Pope may go to him for counsel and spiritual assistance thereby creating two parallel governments in the Vatican. But others say since Benedict has said he was tired and would like to spend more time with God and his books, supporters of the future Pope have nothing to worry about.
The latter argument seems to hold true. As far back as when he was just Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict had said that a Pope should resign if he could no longer carry on. He drove this point home in 2010, when he said in an interview that a Pope should resign if “he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” But added a caveat: “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it.”
The resignation of a Pope is not unprecedented in history. In fact, Benedict would be the fifth Pope to have resigned from office. The first was Marcellinus, who abdicated or was deposed in 304 after succumbing to the Roman emperor’s order to sacrifice to pagan gods. Benedict IX, resigned in 1045, having sold the papacy to Gregory VI, his godfather. It was the overwhelming demand of the office that chased out Celestine V in 1294, while Gregory XII resigned as pope in 1415 in order to restore the unity of the Catholic Church, which had been fractured by schism for nearly 70 years. After his resignation, Gregory lived on for only another two years.
Benedict, who was elected Pope April 19, 2005, at 78, following the death of Pope John Paul II April 2, said in a farewell address on Wednesday, February 27, that in his eight-year tenure, he sometimes “felt like St. Peter with his apostles on Lake Galilee,” in reference to the story in the Bible when the disciples were confronted with heavy storms before Jesus appeared to them. Nevertheless, Benedict said he decided to step down “in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit.” He told the crowd that his papacy had been a heavy burden but that he accepted the challenge because he was sure that God would guide him.
Indeed, the almost eight years of Benedict has had its own share of troubles in internal struggles and global crises, including the prosecution and conviction of his butler for stealing and passing on papal documents to a journalist who wrote a book on internal power struggles in the Vatican. He has since forgiven the errant butler. Like some of his predecessors in office he had his share of revelations involving sexual abuse reports of some priests across the world.
The latest being that of Keith O’Brien, a cardinal and Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic clergy. O’Brien, 75, resigned February 25, following allegations made in The Observer, a British newspaper of Sunday, February 17, that three priests and a former priest had filed complaints to the Vatican alleging that the cardinal acted inappropriately with them in the 1980s. There were no details about the alleged inappropriate behaviour. For that purpose, O’Brien would not be going to the Vatican City for the election of the new Pope.
However, whoever becomes the new Pope would need to sanitise the system to make it meet the new challenges facing the Church and also deal with previous issues that have been putting the Church in bad light.