Among cardinals at papal conclave, youth is a relative term

March 12, 2013

In one of the preliminary meetings before cardinals closeted themselves in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to begin the process of electing the next pontiff, Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini offered an outline of the future pope’s profile.

According to a dispatch by Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa, who was essentially getting feeds from inside the meetings, Ruini said the church needed a “dynamic” pope who is young enough to adequately deal with the challenges faced by the Church.

Young, in this context, is relative. The Catholic hierarchy is an AARP paradise. The average age of the cardinals who walked in the slow procession Tuesday evening is 72. Several used canes and limped to the Book of the Gospels to take their oath. One was hoisted in his wheelchair to a second-tier table. Those more than 80 years old at the time of a pope’s death or resignation, like Ruini, do not have a vote and are not permitted in the conclave to replace Benedict XVI, the 85-year-old who resigned as pope last month because he said he no longer had the energy to lead the church.

The advanced age of the men in control of the church can exacerbate the perception that they are out of touch with modernity and the young people they so desperately want to keep and attract to their flock. Some Vatican officials said that it also has an impact on the management of the church, where turf wars and bad blood form as a result of the same men tripping over themselves for decades. “There were all in excellent form,” a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said with a smirk when asked about the health of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. “They were all there. We counted.”

Not everyone in the conclave is beyond middle age. The youngest cardinal, Baselios Cleemis (Isaac) Thottunkal of India, is 53, two years younger than Luis Antonio Tagle, a Filipino sensation who is often mentioned as a potential pope. The greatest strike against Tagle is often attributed to his age — and his quickness to tears. John Paul II, who was 58 when he was elected in 1978, was considered surprisingly youthful.

“Fifty-eight is not young in most global organizations,” said one senior Vatican official, who spoke on background because he was speaking without authorization. Because of the postgraduate degrees in theology or other intellectual pursuits that many ambitious priests require to rise in the Vatican, “nobody’s effective working life begins before they are 30. So you can knock 10 years off the ages. In the [Vatican’s bureaucracy], it’s almost unheard of to be made a bishop before your mid-50s.”

The resulting gerontocracy can be a startling departure to those more accustomed to the professional rhythms of America, where people are often in the prime of their careers in their 30s, 40s and 50s. By their seventh decade, most Americans hope to be taking it easy. For cardinals at the top of the Vatican hierarchy, this is the age at which they are taking on enormous responsibilities for the future of the church to which they have dedicated their lives.

No surprise, then, that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington referred to himself as 72 years “young” in an interview last week.

“I just spent a big chunk of time with our seminarians and a large chunk of time with staff in our pastoral center, all of whom are quite young,” Wuerl said. “And I just had lunch with 12 really fine future priests. You don’t have to be 22 to hear what a 22-year-old is thinking. So the idea that because I’m 72 I don’t know or hear or understand what’s going on, I don’t think I buy into that, for obvious reasons, because I’m 72!”

He leaned forward: “Don’t you think we also then carry the experience? I have served as a bishop since 1986. Wouldn’t you think I would have learned something?”

Some veteran Vatican observers saw his point.

“We tend to look at it through American eyes,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and longtime Vatican watcher. “We want people who can work 24/7. The rest of the world still honors and respects wisdom and experience.”

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