Monday marked the first day of the General Congregation at the Vatican in Rome, a meeting of Roman Catholic cardinals – both the “cardinal electors” (those eligible to vote for the new pope) and those over 80 and therefore too old to do so – that takes places during the sede vacante, the period when the Chair of Peter is empty.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, awaiting renovation of his new quarters at the Vatican, where he has stated he will engage in prayer and meditation while being utterly obedient to his successor.
He has also given the cardinals permission to begin their conclave as soon as all the electors are present, if they choose. While no official date has been announced, the current rumor is that the conclave – from the Latin cum clave, meaning “with a key,” since the electors will actually be locked daily in the Sistine Chapel to vote – will begin on Monday, March 11.
Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday, begins March 24, and the general sense is that a new pope will be in place before Christianity’s chief holiday, marking the Resurrection of Jesus Christ after death by crucifixion.
According to the Vatican, all but 12 cardinal-electors arrived in time for the opening of the Congregation, with the rest expected to come within a day or so. Not attending is Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the UK’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, who has resigned his position after admitting to sexual misconduct in the 1980s. According to British newspapers, the outgoing pontiff asked O’Brien to step down.
Also a hot topic of conversation is a secret papal dossier – and it is secret, having been seen only by the three retired cardinals who compiled it and the Pope Emeritus – prepared in the wake of the “Vatileaks” scandal, in which the pope’s former butler was found guilty of leaking confidential documents he took from the papal chambers.
Benedict ordered the report to be seen only by the eyes of the incoming pope, and the dossier itself will wait for his successor. However, according to an ABC News report, the investigating cardinals may discuss their findings with the cardinal-electors so they can have a greater appreciation of the problems facing the new pontiff.
According to unattributed reports in Italian newspapers, the dossier looks at various issues within the Vatican – which has elements of a religious community, a city-state, a corporation and a gossipy small town – including an “underground gay network” of church officials subject to blackmail threats.
No doubt many secular onlookers, unafraid to be judgmental when the focus isn’t on them, will make much of these sexual peccadilloes, as if Church clerics and officials cease being flawed human beings when they consign their souls to God. That’s something that would come as news to clerics and officials of various faiths worldwide, not to mention the sexual misconduct of such secular folks as military members, teachers, government officials, heads of state, entertainers, coaches, professional athletes, etc.
There’s an oft-quoted saying that “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints,” and it’s likely that helping to heal the Catholic Church’s many wounds – too many of them, sadly, self-inflicted – took a toll on the health of both Pope John Paul II and his successor.
Perhaps lost in all this are conversations about sins not nearly as salacious but perhaps even more grave and unfortunately spread across all human endeavors.
They speak to abuse of power and the dignity of other people, along with greed, dishonesty and malice – not just that O’Brien may or may not have made advances to fellow men but that he made unwanted advances at all; not that possibly gay Church officials may have been blackmailed, but that there may have been those willing and eager to blackmail them.
As the Catholic Church moves through the interregnum period between popes, it also moves through the painful process of public penance before an equally imperfect world.
In related news, the March 3 premiere of History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries, airing Sundays through Easter, March 31, scored big in the ratings, with nearly 15 million total viewers over two airings.
And, in a strange coincidence, with Passover just three weeks away, a plague of over 30 million locusts has struck the cities and farms of Egypt. While the event – one of the Biblical plagues so familiar to Christians, Jews, and fans of Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” – is a yearly part of the locusts’ natural migration. The sheer size of this swarm has Egyptians on edge, worrying about their crops (which, so far, seem safe).