American Cardinal Says No Rush to Begin Secret Vote on New Pope

Roman Catholic cardinals meeting at the Vatican risk a drawn-out conclave to choose the next pope if they rush to begin the secret ballot, said an American cardinal taking part in the vote.

The cardinals held their second day of a general congregation today that will set the date for the conclave. The gathering also gives the cardinals, who hail from more than 60 countries on five continents, the chance to meet each other, in many cases for the first time.

“Many cardinals are concerned that if there’s not enough time spent in the general congregation, then once we get into the conclave, it could drag on,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston at a press conference in Rome.

The conclave should be a “time of decision and the general congregation is a time of discernment,” he said.

The comments appeared to undercut speculation in the Italian media that the vote could begin as soon as March 10. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi signaled a shift in policy today, saying that the congregation did not have to wait until all the voting cardinals arrived to set the date for the conclave as long as they are sure that their missing colleagues will make it to the Vatican by the start of the vote.

Five of the 115 voting cardinals have yet to arrive, down from eight at the start of the congregation yesterday.

Italian Translation

O’Malley and his colleague Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston said today that so far the congregation had consisted mostly of speeches by cardinals on their views of the most important issues facing the church. Much of the more direct contact among the cardinals occurs at the coffee breaks, with conversations being conducted mostly in Italian, DiNardo said. Translators are on hand to facilitate the meeting.

The cardinals are barred from discussing the contents of the congregation. Still, O’Malley said that he was confident the cardinals would receive details of a secret report that Pope Benedict XVI commissioned on the leak of confidential papal documents to an Italian journalist that detailed intrigue in the church bureaucracy known as the curia.

“I think the cardinals feel that we will get all the information we need,” O’Malley said.

The Vatican today shut the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave takes place, to begin preparations for the election.

The work involves installing a raised floor to put the cardinals at the same level as the altar where the ballots are deposited, Lombardi said. Workers will also set up two stoves, once for burning the ballots after each vote and the other to send up the black or white smoke that wafts over St. Peter’s Square to signal the result of the vote.