Of conclaves, popes and popes emeriti

The news that Tuesday 12 March sees the start of the conclave to elect Benedict XVI’s successor is a great relief. For me, the conclave comes in a week in which I have a lot to be doing. Yet, how does one carry on writing retreat conferences with this great event overshadowing the daylight hours?

pope alarmOne big difference between this conclave and the previous is that way in which it will be covered and the results of its deliberations disseminated. This will be, and the sede vacante already confirms this, a period dominated by the new social media. The mainstream media have their place, but they no longer have the monopoly, indeed they might not even wield the strongest influence. I have got a Twitter account going now primarily to tap into its great strength: instantaneous news flashes. With some judicious following (one does not “subscribe” on Twitter, one follows) anyone can have a dozen little boxes flash up within seconds of each other, merely a few more seconds after the black or white smoke pours out of the Sistine smokestack. In fact, the selfsame chimney has its own Twitter account – @ConclaveChimney. Or there is the more prosaic Papal Smoke Alarm – @PopeAlarm. The Papal Smoke Alarm also has a Facebook page, and a website where you can subscribe to get the news sent instantly to you by email or (for North Americans only) by text message. Someone can tweet “White smoke” before the mainstream media can put their coffee mugs down. Millions of us will know the colour of the smoke long before the mainstream media can get a radio or TV broadcast out. They no longer control the breaking of news.

Pope twitter

Of course, we will want to watch the Petrine balcony as the Cardinal steps out to make the announcement. In 2005 a radio broadcast tipped off the brethren here to rush down to the TV room for the BBC live feed. The BBC, Sky News, CNN etc will all have live video feeds on the internet no doubt, making such a dash unnecessary this time around. But Vatican Radio’s website will probably have a live feed too (they did for the daily press conferences). Maybe also News.va. Someone might even set up a live Youtube feed from his or her vantage point in St Peter’s Square. The mainstream media will not control the live vision of the announcement.

Think back to Benedict’s last address to the clergy of Rome, after he announced his intention to abdicate. He spoke of the council of the media, which controlled the dissemination of the Second Vatican Council’s news and teachings to the world, and to the Church as well. The portrait of the Council the people then saw was shaped and coloured by the media’s agenda. The world saw, said Benedict, not the real Council but the virtual council of the media. He called on the Church to re-discover and re-claim the real Council.

Certainly, at this conclave, we will not be forced to settle for a virtual conclave, reported through the agenda of the mainstream media. We can behold the real conclave through any number of independent reporters through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, blogs… you get the idea. It will be an icon of the mission to reclaim the real Council.

Benedict’s new title

Earlier I noted with great satisfaction Cardinal Cocopalmerio’s announcement of Benedict’s style in retirement. Then a few days later I noted with consternation the Vatican spokesman’s rival title, or titles in fact, for he seemed not to know which if his two versions was the right one.

So of the three options – Bishop Emeritus of Rome, Pope Emeritus or Pontiff Emeritus – which is the correct one? Chi sa? as the Italians might say… (or is it Chi lo sa?). Prominent Vaticanista Sandro Magister is stirring the pot, as he often does, by covering the opinion of Carlo Fantappiè. He raises the larger issue of the troublesome ambiguities in having what might be construed as two popes. It is worth a read.

Anyway, for the moment my money is on Cardinal Cocopalmerio’s “His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Bishop Emeritus of Rome” seems sounder and more authoritative. CocoChanel … oops… Cocopalmerio is Prefect for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, so he has some weighty canonical clout. His announcement satisfied the significant concerns: it made it clear that “Pope” was no longer of Benedict’s title, but also it acknowledged that there is something that endures in a man one he has occupied Peter’s throne. The essential thing about “emeritus” is that is signifies retention of the status but not the power of an office. A bishop emeritus is still a bishop, with all his sacramental powers, but he has no jurisdiction, exercises no authority for governance in the Church. But for St Peter’s successor, the title “pope” goes with that petrine office of universal governance and jurisdiction.

Yet, I would argue, there is surely an indelible imprint left after holding the keys of the kingdom. Though hardly the fruit of systematic reflection, a category does present itself to my mind. We cannot speak of a sacramental character in the papacy, of course, as we can for Baptism or Ordination. So maybe this indelible imprint of the keys on the papal hand could be termed, very loosely and tentatively, a Petrine character. The nuances involved seem to be well reflected in His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Bishop Emeritus of Rome.

The next Pope?

There are too many links to include here without turning the post psychedelic with coloured links. Yet if you do some Googling you will find that a goodly number of cardinals are being touted as, if not favourites, then at least very attractive and adequate candidates. Cardinal Turkson was an early favourite, his African origins offering the tantalising prospect of a third-world pope. Sadly the poster campaign in his favour now underway in Rome may have scotched his candidacy: the merest hint of public campaigning is taboo. Furthermore, there is an undercurrent in the life of the African Church, especially among the clergy, that is troubling, and casts a shadown of any African cardinal. Cardinals Scola and Ouellet are seen as cut from the same theological cloth as Benedict and likely to embrace his legacy, but their being near favourites does rather call to mind the adage, He who enters the conclave a pope, leaves it a cardinal. Cardinal Schönborn is also a theologian in the Ratzinger tradition, but the chaos in his Austrian Church would weigh heavily against him. Cardinal Ravasi is another attractive figure, but there is a question as to whether another Italian is desirable (which counts against Scola as well). In recent days the Brazilian Cardinal Scherer has been gaining attention, though there is the whiff of scandal attaching to his name as word spreads that Brazilian clerics have been encouraging the media to talk  up his candidacy. Cardinals Dolan and Burke are mentioned increasingly too, by those who think the time has come for an American. Dolan is personable; Burke is hard-core Ratzingerian and liturgically minded.

Ultimately most people predict who they would prefer as pope, a phenomenon especially obvious in the mainstream media. To state one’s preference is probably the more respectable way to proceed. There are so many promising candidates that, for me, it seems necessary to apply a more exhaustive set of criteria. What name do I come up with, according to my agenda?


Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith ticks many boxes indeed. He is Archbishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka, so he ticks the third-world and pastoral boxes. Indeed, he had positive input into the peace process in Sri Lanka between Tamils and Sinhalese, so he is something of a peacemaker. He has worked in the curia in recent years, so he knows how it works. He had a tough time there by many accounts, so he may be up to giving it a healthy dose of reform. He is very liturgical, in the tradition of Benedict XVI, and would be likely to further the Benedictine plan of action for the liturgy of the Church. His preaching style is much admired for its directness and accessibility. Being about 66 years old, he is of an ideal age in many respects.

So… you never know!

4 thoughts on “Of conclaves, popes and popes emeriti

  1. Salve Pater,

    Thank you for a fascinating post. There is really too much to comment on here.

    I am sure the post-pontifical style of the former pope, Benedict XVI, will become clearer after the election of the new pope. The Church will no longer be sede vacante, always a time of confusion and doubt. Did this period not used to be called the saeculum obscurum of the Church ? (I may not have the exact phrase correct.) The new pope – whoever it is – will be the pope. There will not be – cannot be – two popes !

    As to the new pope, who knows ? I, too, could make a shortlist of my preferences. I suspect it would be similar to Father’s. I regret the amiable Cardinal Turckson seems to be out of the running. Cardinal Ranjith would be a splendid choice, but I doubt he has enough support in the College of cardinals. Somehow, I don’t see an American being elected. Nor a South American. If they want to play safe, they will go for an Italian. This seems to me a quite likely outcome. (There has not been an Italian since 1978.)

    Well, we’ll soon know !

    Pax et bonum



    1. Salve!

      An Italian? Well, I imagine the cardinals might see an Italian as a steadying influence, and able to navigate the murky waters of ecclesial and world politics. But the cardinals are an even more international bunch than before, and with the papacy now international again after a looooooong hiatus they might want to keep the international show running.

      As long as we keep in mind that the media probably have no real idea at all of what initial consensus the cardinals might be nearing (or have already neared), we should be safe from wild speculation.

      If Scola gets it, it will probably be for a myriad of reasons other than his being Italian. But I would not write of Ranjith just yet. Nor Turkson.

      Let it not be too long a conclave. The suspense could kill me.



  2. Salve Pater ,

    The suspense could kill me.

    Now then, we can’t have any of that ! Father has important work to do where he is. The Conclave begins tomorrow. Before the week is out, I believe we will have a new pope. I doubt the divisions run so deep that there will be more than four of five ballots at most. There are already divisions amonst the Italian cardinals (which is not surprising, given the divisions that exist in the Curia itself), but that does not mean an Italian will not emerge, though I, too, would prefer a non-Italian. Indeed, I think it will take a non-Italian with Curial experience (which somewhat limits the field) to reform the Curia, and thence move forward with the Benedictine reform.

    Of course, the Holy Ghost no doubt sees things differently !

    Pax et bonum



    1. Yes, indeed. For example, the Holy Ghost might not rate curial reform so high.

      Anyway, less than 24 hours now till we get underway with Conclave 2013. Glad I am not a cardinal!



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