Cardinals from around the globe have locked themselves inside the Sistine Chapel to choose a new leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and their troubled church.
Surrounded by Michelangelo’s imposing frescos imagining the beginning and the end of the world, the 115 scarlet-robed men entered their conclave with a final appeal for unity to heal the divisions that have been exposed by Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and revelations of corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Led by prelates holding a crucifix and candles, the cardinals chanted the Litany of Saints, the Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of the saints, as they filed into the chapel and took their oath of secrecy.
With a dramatic closing of the thick double doors and the exhortation “Extra omnes” or “all out,” the ritual-filled conclave began beneath Michelangelo’s frescoed “Creation” and before his “Last Judgment” - potent images for the task at hand.
Benedict XVI’s resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed deep divisions among cardinals grappling with the apparently conflicting needs for a manager to clean up the Vatican’s dysfunctional bureaucracy and a pastor who can inspire Catholics at a time of waning faith and growing secularism.
The buzz swirled around Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian seen as favoured by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favourite of Vatican-based insiders intent on preserving the status quo. Other names included Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican’s powerful office for bishops, and US Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the exuberant archbishop of New York.
In a final appeal before the conclave began, the dean of the College of Cardinals, retired Cardinal Angelo Sodano, appealed for unity within the church, urging the cardinal electors to put their differences aside.
For over a week, the cardinals have met behind closed doors to try to figure out who among them has the stuff to be pope and what his priorities should be. But they ended the debate with questions still unanswered, and many predicting a drawn-out election that will further expose the church’s divisions. The conclave proceeds in silence, with no debate.
During the discussions, Vatican-based cardinals defended their administration against complaints that they have been indifferent to the needs of cardinals in the field. At one point, the Brazilian head of one Vatican office drew applause for challenging the Vatican No. 2, who has been blamed for most of the bureaucracy’s administrative failings.