CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO
Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze and Portuguese Cardinal Josz Saraiva Martins are seated in synod hall at the Vatican March 7 for one of several general congregation meetings being held ahead of the conclave.
Prior to entering the conclave to elect a new pope, members of the College of Cardinals held six days of meetings – called congregations – to discuss a wide range of issues facing the Church today.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters that as many as 152 cardinals, including those over 80 years old, were present for the daily general congregation meetings that ended March 11.
"It's absolutely obvious" that the cardinals are talking about everything they believe is important for governing the Church, Lombardi said March 7.
"The cardinals are preparing for an election by informing themselves and forming opinions and evaluating situations, requesting information they believe is pertinent.
"They must understand what are the problems of the Church in the world, the problems of governing the Church, the principal expectations that will await the candidate they elect, and they must prepare for this," Lombardi said.
"This does not mean that the cardinals can't reflect on or discuss the specificity of this situation with the renunciation of the pope and the way it is being perceived by the faithful – that certainly may be part of their considerations," he said.
"But this does not, in my opinion, change the basic task facing them, which is electing his successor."
The cardinals also discussed "the profile" required of the next pope to meet the needs of the Church, Lombardi said.
CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, retired archbishop of Cebu, Philippines and Luis Tagle of Manila arrive for a congregation meeting.
"One senses strongly within the College (of Cardinals) the desire for an adequate, serious, profound preparation, not hurried," he said.
Because of that, the cardinals did not set the March 12 date for the start of the conclave until their March 8 meeting, he said.
In addition, he said, all the electors were not present until March 7, so it was deemed "more respectful and natural" to await their arrival before setting a date.
Moving too quickly to a vote, he said, "could seem to many like forcing" the issue, rather than "respecting the dynamic of reflection and maturation" of ideas on the part of the cardinals.
As well, the College of Cardinals agreed to a media blackout similar to one observed before the previous conclave in 2005.
They made that decision because of unauthorized press reports on their preparatory meetings, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a March 6 email to reporters.
"Concern was expressed in the general congregation about leaks of confidential proceedings reported in Italian newspapers," Walsh wrote. "As a precaution, the cardinals have agreed not to do interviews."
Italian media outlets had been running unattributed stories describing the cardinals as sharply divided, over both the timing of the conclave and how deeply to delve into the corruption and mismanagement sensationally documented in the 2012 VatiLeaks of confidential correspondence.
Lombardi would not comment on the reasons for the blackout, but said he was not surprised that cardinals who had started with an attitude "of openness, of communication, of sharing" had changed approach in the course of their deliberations, deferring to the "sensitivity, the desire and indications of the whole College of Cardinals."
CNS PHOTO | ERIC GAILLARD, REUTERS
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, rides his bicycle to a general congregation meeting at the Vatican March 11.
The American cardinals had held two briefings with reporters and had planned to hold them every day. "We're trying to help people to have a greater understanding of what the process is," said Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
While stressing they were bound by an oath of secrecy about their discussions, the U.S. cardinals answered questions about various topics, including the possible timing of the conclave and controversies over clergy sex abuse and mismanagement in the Vatican.
No other national group of cardinals had made itself available to the media in a similar way, and the U.S. briefings, held at the North American College in Rome, had drawn mounting interest from the international press.
In his daily briefings, Lombardi could not give specific details of the discussions because he is bound by an oath of secrecy to give only general information.
On March 5, he described the subjects discussed as "broad and varied," including "the activity of the Holy See and its various (departments), their relationships with the bishops, the renewal of the Church in the light of the Second Vatican Council, the situation of the Church and the needs for New Evangelization in the world, including in different cultural situations."
The cardinals also listened to Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, who gave the two meditations required by Church law before a conclave.
Cantalamessa also gave the first meditation in 2005 after the death of Blessed John Paul II.
At the first congregation on March 4, after praying for the presence of the Holy Spirit, the cardinals and those assisting them took the oath of secrecy.
During their last meeting on March 11 before entering the conclave, the cardinals heard a report on the Vatican bank and continuing efforts to comply with international standards to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism.
The presentation on the bank was given by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, president of the commission of cardinals overseeing the Institute for the Works of Religion, the formal name of the Vatican bank.
Lombardi said Bertone's presentation was brief and touched upon the nature of the bank and "the process of joining the international system of controls."
Lombardi said 27 other cardinals also spoke at the session.
"Naturally, because it was the last meeting, many were about the expectations for the (new) Holy Father – a profile and expectations," he said.
During the 10 sessions of general congregations, he said, the cardinals listened to 160 presentations. A few cardinals spoke more than once and a few did not have a chance at all.