VATICAN CITY (RNS) As former pope Benedict XVI started his retired life in the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo on Friday (March 1), cardinals in Rome began preparations that will lead up to the closed-door conclave to elect his successor.
Benedict slept well and was serene during his first night after resigning the papacy and leaving the Vatican, said the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, who spoke with the former pope’s personal aide, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein.
But for the cardinals flocking to Rome to choose the next pope, the action is just heating up.
On the first day of the “sede vacante” interim period, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, sent out a letter to the “princes of the church” summoning them Monday (March 4) for the first “general congregation.” Those daily meetings of cardinals will govern the church until the next pope is elected.
The start date of the conclave has not yet been announced and won’t be decided on Monday, Lombardi said.
For any decision about the election of the new pope to be taken, all 115 voting cardinals need to be in Rome, and some are still making their way to the Eternal City.
But as they wait for the latecomers and for the start of the congregations, cardinals have already started thinking and discussing the name they will write on the ballot when voting begins in the Sistine Chapel.
“I think we’ve thought about it now for some time in a rather explicit way, but even before, we looked at people who we know or who we think are particularly effective,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told reporters Thursday at Rome’s North American College.
George, who voted in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict, said cardinals arrive in Rome with a list of “primary candidates,” as well as of other names to fall back on.
These names and ideas, he said, shape the “smaller, more intimate conversations” cardinals have as they get to know candidates and “winnow” their list of potential popes.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said he and fellow cardinals are “still in the process of discernment and prayer and trying to learn more.”
The Capuchin cardinal, participating in his first conclave, said he is trying to read up on other cardinals as much as possible, “using the Internet a lot.”
O’Malley said an important part of the preparation for the conclave will take place during the general congregations. During those daily meetings, the cardinals will size each other up and get a feel for their lesser-known colleagues.
Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo of Galveston-Houston in Texas agreed. “We’ll hear from various people from various parts of the world … In my mind, it’s gonna be illuminating,” he said.
More than half of the cardinals who will choose Benedict’s successor have never participated in a conclave before, so the daily meetings will offer the chance for the many newcomers to get a sense of their task and of what might be needed from the person they will elect.
Only then “a consensus starts to emerge, a sense of what’s needed,” said Di Nardo, prepping for his first conclave.
Benedict won’t be a part of the conclave or of its preparation. During the next two months, he will remain in Castel Gandolfo. He will also get no advance word of the winner.
Benedict’s retirement will be spent reading books and possibly practicing on his piano, an old pastime he has recently taken up again, Lombardi said.