A “pro eligendo Romano Pontifice” Mass will be celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica Tuesday morning. Then on Tuesday afternoon the cardinals will enter into the conclave to begin casting ballots for selection of a successor to His Holiness Benedict XVI.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, announced the date for the start of the election, known as a conclave, in a message to reporters March 8.
Rules governing papal elections state that a conclave must start between 15 and 20 days after the Holy See falls vacant; but shortly before his resignation Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree allowing cardinal to move up the start date if they choose.
The College of Cardinals decided the date on the fifth day of its pre-conclave meetings, after waiting for the 115 cardinals eligible and expected to vote. The last to arrive in Rome was Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, who joined the others March 7.
At the morning session March 8, before announcing the scheduled vote, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, told the assembly that with the changes made by His Holiness Benedict XVI, the cardinals would not have to debate on whether they were authorized to begin the conclave before March 15, Father Lombardi said.
During the same session, the cardinals chose 87-year-old Cardinal Prosper Grech, a Maltese expert in the early church fathers, to give the meditation at the beginning of the conclave.
The Vatican spokesman said that 18 cardinals spoke during the morning session. As people around the world observed International Women’s Day, one of the cardinals spoke about the role of women in the church.
Other topics included interreligious dialogue, bioethics, the church’s role in promoting justice, collegiality in the church and the need for the church’s evangelizers to proclaim God’s love and mercy.
When 115 cardinal electors gather in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to elect a new pope, they will be praying and voting four times a day.
The conclave schedule leaves little time for discussing the needs of the church the new pope will have to face, which is why the entire College of Cardinals met March 4-7 without even discussing a possible date to begin the conclave, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.
At the March 7 morning session of the meetings known as general congregations, 16 cardinals addressed the college, Father Lombardi said. They included three cardinals required by church law to inform the cardinals of the Vatican’s financial situation: Cardinals Domenico Calcagno, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See; Giuseppe Versaldi, president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See; and Giuseppe Bertello, president of the commission governing Vatican City State.
Father Lombardi said he was not authorized to give details of their reports; the Vatican traditionally publishes its annual consolidated budget figures in July.
Among the topics discussed by the 13 other cardinals were the ecumenical relations of the Catholic Church and the church’s charitable work and assistance to the poor, Father Lombardi said. Those talks were in addition to comments that continue to be made in the broader areas of the new evangelization; the situation of the church in the world; the working of the Roman Curia and curial offices’ relations with bishops; and the qualities and characteristics a new pope will need to address those concerns.
While Father Lombardi was authorized to give reporters only limited details about the discussions, he said it would be reasonable to assume that some of the questions about the Roman Curia involved the so-called “VatiLeaks” scandal last year. Secret documents were leaked to the press and Pope Benedict XVI’s butler was convicted of theft and jailed for a time.
“It’s absolutely obvious” that the cardinals are talking about everything they believe is important for governing the church, he said. “The cardinals are preparing for an election by informing themselves and forming opinions and evaluating situations, requesting information they believe is pertinent.”
With more than 150 cardinals present — including those over age 80 and ineligible to vote in the conclave — almost every subject imaginable is being mentioned, he said.
Asked whether the resignation of Pope Benedict, rather than the death of a pope, is making a difference in the kinds of questions faced during the general congregations, Father Lombardi said, the task facing the cardinals is the same: “The cardinals know well what is asked of them and what they are here to do: prepare for an election and hold a conclave to elect a pope.”
“They must understand what are the problems of the church in the world, the problems of governing the church, the principal expectations that will await the candidate they elect, and they must prepare for this,” Father Lombardi said.
“This does not mean that the cardinals can’t reflect on or discuss the specificity of this situation with the renunciation of the pope and the way it is being perceived by the faithful — that certainly may be part of their considerations,” the Jesuit said. “But this does not, in my opinion, change the basic task facing them, which is electing his successor.”
Polish Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw, who arrived in Rome March 6, joined the general congregation meeting March 7, bringing up to 114 the number of cardinal electors present. Vietnamese Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City was expected to join the cardinals for their evening session.