Day Six: Timeless Skies – and Electoral Blocs

In times when a Biblical sensibility was more widespread, the weather alone the past days in Rome might have seemed apocalyptic. It’s been raining hard most days – and will be, it appears, this whole week of the Conclave. Lightning has hit the dome of St. Peter’s a couple times and a slight earthquake shook Castel Gandolfo, where Pope Emeritus Benedict is living until he can move to a quiet retreat on the Vatican grounds.

Let’s hope the cardinal electors make the daily transit unharmed across the Vatican from their rooms in Casa Santa Marta to the Sistine Chapel, and back. If anything happened to even one of them, who knows what it would mean for the whole canonical process?

Today (Sunday), though, started as one of those sunny, clear-air days more typical of Rome (there was a downpour of Biblical proportions with rolling thunder by the afternoon, which drove the news people down off the Roman roofs). We can’t say, of course, whether the climate of ancient Rome resembled what it is now. Climate change, on quite a large scale, has been happening since long before our species made its appearance. But there are days in Rome when eternity shines through and, in certain places, you might as easily think you’re living in the time of the early Church here as in the twenty-first century.

Sunday was a day for the cardinals to say Mass in their titular churches, spread all over the city. And these took place not only under timeless sunny skies but under the close scrutiny of the news hungry press as well. NY Cardinal Dolan, who has captured the imagination of the Italian media, had around seventy-five reporters at his Mass in Rome’s Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Asked after by an Italian reporter whether it would be a short Conclave, he said he didn’t know, but “Let’s hope.” The other often mentioned American papabile, Sean O’Malley of Boston, celebrated his Mass at Santa Maria della Vittoria, appropriately for a mystical Franciscan, the church that houses Bernini’s famous Ecstasy of St. Theresa of Avila.

       Cardinals Scola, Ouellet, and Scherer: leading contenders . . . today

Insofar as we can peer into the coalitions that have begun to form among the cardinals, the broad numbers seem to fall out like this: Angelo Scola (a student of Ratzinger’s who has also been shaped by the spirituality of Communion and Liberation), around 40 votes; Canadian Marc Ouellet has between 10 and 15 supporters, but seems to be stronger than that number suggests (Supreme Knight Carl Anderson took communion at Ouellet’s Mass Sunday); Odilo Scherer, a Brazilian being pushed by the Curia, may have 20 to 30 backers, but his chances seem weaker than his numbers.

At most, these estimates account for about 85 of the 115 cardinal electors. So there are at least 30 votes in play even before the horse-trading begins. If history is any guide, the first ballot on Tuesday (the only one that day) is meant to take the general temperature of the college. Electors are expected to begin to see if a preferred candidate has any real chance or whether they need to move towards a compromise candidate who will at least pursue most of what they want.

In a small electorate like this, there’s a well-known phenomenon that can work against an early front-runner. Since it’s clear that at this point no one is likely to gain the 77 votes (two-thirds) needed on the first ballot, an early leader may begin to attract supporters in coalition – or he may galvanize blocs of opponents in the ballots that immediately follow (four per day) who may decide to make it clear very early that they won’t allow a given candidate to move forward. According to reports (which are not supposed to exist, but do), that has happened in a couple of recent conclaves. The Italians especially remember a 1978 split in their ranks between two candidates from Italy, which allowed John Paul II to be elected.  

As the case of Wojtyla shows, the Holy Spirit seems quite adept at electoral politics and knows how to do great things even with human discord.   

Pay close attention to the early leaks. This whole thing is likely to be over by the end of the week.

[Note: this report may also be read in Italian and French.]