Crucial Conclave for a New Pope

Perhaps, within a couple of weeks – without a key – secluded from the outside world, 117 cardinals from around the world will assemble in a large hall at Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, to elect a new pope to succeed Pope Benedict XVI who just resigned.

The cardinals will be shut in it, with no contact with anyone outside, preventing any kind of bias, until they collectively decide upon a name. The election process could take days, or even months. One conclave during 1774-1775 took 133 days!

People outside can just wait for smoke signals. Black smoke coming out of the top of the hall means the cardinals have decided to vote again. White smoke means they have reached a decision.

With Pope Benedict himself changing rules and saying that a Papal Conclave of the College of Cardinals cannot begin until 15 days after resignation – the date of which is February 28 – I think, the conclave might begin around March 15.

The resignation of this 265th pope, in a long unbroken line of popes over 2000 years, has caused much consternation, because a pope is normally expected to be in office till the end of his life. And no pope has ever resigned in the last 600 years.

From St. Peter, who is regarded as the first pope, to Pope Benedict XVI, the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church has been riddled with controversies and scandals, and has been faced with protests and revolts. But the papal line somehow survived the onslaught of changing views from a constantly changing world, and is still marching on. It is probably due to the sheer strength of its numbers. There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet, now.

I believe that the speculations on why Pope Benedict XVI sought an early departure are reasonable and well-founded. I believe that there may be definitely some truth in the aged pope being unable to handle the extreme pressure put on the church by accusations from various fronts; top accusations being child sex abuse and homosexual clergy, apart from flagrant corruption within the church’s organizational structures.

Italian newspapers quoting unnamed sources say that a dossier was prepared for the pope by three cardinals who investigated into the origins of the 2012 scandal termed ‘Vatileaks’ – when a Vatican butler leaked sensitive information to the outside world.

And, according to those newspapers, the revelations in the dossier, given to Pope Benedict in December, were a factor in his decision to resign. The pope simply said that he doesn’t have the “strength of mind and body” to carry on, and would resign on Thursday, Feb. 28.

La Repubblica, a top Italian newspaper, reported that Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign on Dec. 17 itself, the day he received the dossier from the cardinals.

Whatever his personal decision is, I think, the church must take up the task of redressing issues that are tarnishing its image. The new pope must be younger and stronger to take on the challenges faced by this most responsible position in Christendom. If no cardinal can be above 80 years, then why should the pope be older? If Catholic Bishops can resign, why should the pope not be allowed to do it?

In this age, when communication can spread at lightning speed, it is hard to cover up sensitive issues. The new pope must come out with huge policy changes and major restructuring so that the Church is kept abreast of times, without diluting its purpose of existence.

I agree with many who think that the new pope must be from Asia, Africa, or from Latin America. Yes. Why should the popes be mostly from Europe? Aren’t there Catholic priests all over the world?

But, against my argument is a big lacuna. The elected pope must necessarily serve as the Bishop of Rome. And to be the Bishop of Rome, one must definitely speak Latin. The pope is expected to address people in Latin, from time to time, from his balcony overlooking St. Peter’s square. But how many Asian, African and Latin American priests speak Latin? What is solution to this problem?

Finding it is one of the challenges ahead for the new pope. If the Church wishes to stay strong in changing times, new rules must give it a more global perspective.

But, as for now, let us just wait to see who will lead the global church. Let us just wait for the white smoke – the holy smoke – from the conclave.