Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Ballot smoke

In the Philippines, we’ll probably hear the cry by 4:30 in the afternoon Tuesday. More than 5,000 journalists accredited to the papal conclave have microphones and cameras clustered at the entrance of Rome’s Sistine Chapel. There, the papal master of ceremonies will order: “Extra  omnes!” Everybody out!

Aides, guards and cardinals over age 80 will file out. After the doors are locked, Manila’s Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle and 114 other cardinals will cast the first ballot for a successor to Peter the fisherman.

Michelangelo’s painting of the “Last Judgment” hangs behind the altar. Behind the fresco are 21st-century systems to scramble any communications with the world outside. Here, ancient ritual meets high-tech security. Even the merest hint of deliberations can bring on excommunication.


Can anyone muster 77 votes at first go? “There is no clear frontrunner,” writes National Catholic Reporter’s Thomas Reese. A fifth of the cardinals had red caps for a year. They’re  matching faces with biodata.

Rewind to 1978. Karol Wojtyla from Poland was elected, on the eighth ballot, as a dark-horse candidate. “Karol who?” asked many in Piazza di San Pietro when the man, who took the name of John Paul II, stepped forward.

Tuesday’s first ballots will be tallied then burned between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., Rome time. That’d be past midnight here—too late for many Filipinos to watch smoke waft from the Sistine chimney. If black, it means no pontiff was elected.

Four votes on Wednesday would follow: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. And so on—until a pope is elected. Smoke would then turn white. When Joseph Aloisius Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) was chosen in 2005, “the smoke was more of a light gray color than obvious white,” recalls reporter Barbie Latza Nadeau. “There was initial confusion.”

This time around, the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica will clang. It’ll take about 45 minutes or more, after the new pope says, “Accepto”;  he’ll appear on the balcony overlooking the piazza. During that time, he chooses a name.

Few noticed, meanwhile, the gap in Roman tailor Gammarelli’s display window. Founded in 1798, this shop is today located near the Pantheon. It has dressed every pope since 1922. Early March, it exhibited three white cassocks: small, medium and large. Multiple cassocks in the past provided a choice for popes, from the portly John XXIII and his slender successor, Paul VI.

“The small model may suit Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines,” the UK Guardian speculates. “The large model is (right) for  papabili  such as New York archbishop Timothy Dolan…”

The cassocks now hang in a room behind the Sistine Chapel, known as the “Room of Tears.” Emotions often choke up the new pontiff as he heads there alone to change into the white cassock. After the dean of cardinals declares “Habemus  Papam,” the new pope steps forward.


The new pope faces an overflowing in-tray, writes veteran Vatican reporter John Allen. One is the “global realities of Catholicism.” Two-thirds of today’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in the southern hemisphere. That will surge to three-quarters by 2050 in a church that “shifted southwards” over the past century, notes the New York Times.

Indifference and secularization emptied Europe pews. In contrast, Asia has 130 million Catholics, up from 126 million, Vatican’s statistical yearbook reports. Latin America’s Catholics will rise to 600 million within two decades. There would be 220 million African Catholics by 2025.

Is the Vatican now in the wrong location? “It’s 2,000 miles too far north of its emerging homelands,” writes Philip Jenkins in the New Republic. At the conclave, cardinals will look south.

Yet, 80 percent of acts of religious discrimination are directed against Christians. In Lahore, Pakistan, this week, 3,000 Muslim extremists attacked Joseph Colony and burned 200 homes there. The police did nothing.

From Nigeria to India, Catholics are arrested, beaten or killed. Their fate is worthy of papal attention. But as Allen notes, that doesn’t mean the next pope has to be a non-European. “But there’s a growing sense … he must act for oftentimes beleaguered Catholic cohorts outside the West.”

The “New Evangelization,” which the last Synod endorsed, seeks to relight the missionary fires of the faith, especially among the alienated. In the United States alone, there are 22 million ex-Catholics. That’s “enough to constitute the United States’ second-largest religious denomination, if so minded.”

These suggest preference for a pope with extensive experience working in parishes, able to gauge what works at the grassroots. “It may mean a pope who’s slightly less cerebral—a pastor, not a professor.”

“A magnificent teaching pope, Benedict was but a mixed bag as a governor. He was ill-served by key aides,” Allen notes.

“Reform of the curia” could be the 2013 shibboleth. The cardinals cite three pillars: (a) transparency—they want a curia that’s clearer about the logic for decisions and who makes them; (b) accountability—put right people in the right jobs, and scrub poor performers; (c) modernization—update with 21st-century standards of business management.

Benedict exemplifies the Vatican’s legendary penchant for thinking in centuries. Yet, this long view also insulated Benedict from the fallout of crisis. Still, his stunning decision to resign separated the end of his papacy from the end of his life. He ensured an elbow room for future conclaves.


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