VATICAN CITY Eight years ago, many of the men with red caps and red cloaks who walked into the Sistine Chapel to choose a pope seemed to be in a state of grief-shaped numbness.
The only pope most had known for their professional lives as cardinals had died. The funeral had been an ornate, somber affair, replete with the evocation of the saints and the attendance of heads of state from the world over, not to mention millions of pilgrims.
The cardinals were eager for guidance. And that guidance, that leadership, swiftly showed itself in the person of Joseph Ratzinger, officially the dean of cardinals, who calmly, expertly led the prayer services, conversed with cardinals in their native languages and outlined what they needed to do.
No wonder Ratzinger was elected to replace Pope John Paul II, who had reigned for 27 years, in less than 24 hours. It was one of the shortest conclaves in history.
Today is very different, a cascade of events triggered by the first resignation of a pope in six centuries. Benedict’s decision to step down at age 85 has turned the usual calculation about success and process on its head. It completely unnerved the usually plodding, meticulously choreographed church leadership. Precedents have been shattered; and while one cannot say that anything can happen, there certainly is a much wider range of possibility.
Not weighed down by the force of grief and mourning, the 115 cardinals gathered here to pick Benedict’s replacement have shown an unusual feistiness, an inquisitiveness that was not seen that last time around and that has drawn out proceedings and scrambled candidacies for the successor. Surely there is much to discuss, from scandals involving sexual abuse to allegations of money-laundering by the Vatican bank.
Cardinals delivered more than 150 speeches in 10 pre-conclave meetings, known as congregations. When the final session concluded Monday, there were still several prelates who had signed up to speak but were cut off because time had run out, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
That glimpse inside the congregations offered further evidence that the cardinals have been thrown for a loop by Benedict’s stunning resignation. They also apparently feel more free to speak their mind: The solemnity that the 2005 funeral and attendant Masses infused in the atmosphere is absent in 2013.
Where Ratzinger had a leading role in the conclave, this year’s dean of cardinals, Angelo Sodano, led the final Mass before the conclave but, at age 85, is too old to participate in the voting itself.
And though cardinals in 2005 were in mourning, most had known for quite a while that the day they would be gathering to select a new pope was imminent. Perhaps some had settled on their candidate well before filing into the Sistine Chapel.
“John Paul’s illness was very long and we had already prepared psychologically to elect a successor,” the well-respected Cardinal Paul Poupard of France, now 82, was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s La Stampa newspaper. “This time the difference is abyssal. The resignation of Benedict has really been a bolt of lightning, out of the blue, for everyone.”
In an institution accustomed to moving at its own, millennial pace, the lack of a clear front-runner to occupy St. Peter’s chair has created an air of unpredictability that has disconcerted veterans, pundits and the Catholic faithful. Although the name of Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, often comes up, he by no means has a lock.
“What we are living is an extraordinary conclave,” longtime Vatican watcher Marco Tosatti wrote this week in his blog. “Not just because it’s a conclave that has to elect a pope while another one is still alive. But because in the last century there’s never been this much uncertainty.”
This papal transition marked another first: A cardinal declined to attend the conclave because of personal scandal. Keith O’Brien of Scotland resigned from public clerical life last month, acknowledging unspecific sexual misbehavior days after several priests made allegations against him.
In modern times, no cardinal has ever skipped a conclave – participation in which is considered a cardinal’s primordial duty – except in cases of severe health problems.
Cardinals have hinted strongly that they want a pope who is a firm-handed, clearheaded governor who can attend to a Vatican administration that Benedict is judged to have neglected. But there are also urgings for a “pastoral” pope with great communication skills who can reach out to an increasingly disaffected Catholic world.
“Let us pray to the Holy Spirit to illumine the church to choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith and make more visible … the love of the church,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said before the conclave.
As a Franciscan who is seen as friendly and humble, O’Malley would seem to fit the bill of a pastoral pope. That an American could be seriously considered at all is yet another of the head-scratching anomalies of this transition.
The next pope may not be an American, but the American cardinals, 11 of whom will vote in the conclave, have had an unusually forceful role in shaping the pre-conclave debate over what kind of pope should lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. They have assumed a prominent role in demanding explanations for the array of scandals plaguing the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia.
The Americans were emboldened, sources said, because they got an earful from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a senior Curia official who was abruptly transferred to Washington as the Vatican’s ambassador, or nuncio, in late 2011. Vigano was an early casualty in the so-called Vati-leaks scandal, when Benedict’s personal butler leaked the pontiff’s private documents to an Italian journalist. Those documents included letters from Vigano that were highly critical of alleged corruption and mismanagement within the Curia, opinions he has reportedly not been shy about sharing with the cardinals.
The 2005 conclave was the first time the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica were used to signal the successful election of a pope, in part because the smoke that is supposed to be white often was a harder-to-discern gray. The problem with the solution, however, is that bells chime frequently in Rome, which led to even more confusion. On top of that, when the vote finally settled on Benedict, and the copper-chimneyed stove was being fired up, someone forgot to notify the bell-ringer, recalled Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a scholar with the Catholic University of America.
There was a 20-minute delay for the bells to toll, he said, an eternity for the massive crowds trying to figure out whether a pope had indeed been elected. Still, his advice: “Wait for the bell.”
Asked about the differences between the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, Vatican spokesman Lombardi recalled those crowds, made up largely of pilgrims who came to Rome for the funeral of John Paul and stayed for the election of his successor.
“Last time we were here with millions of people. You could not get out of the press room,” he said, referring to the building that sits just to one side of St. Peter’s Square.
But, he insisted, at the end of the day, the cardinals’ task, then as now, was unchanged.
“They knew what to do,” he said.