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Cardinals hold meeting but do not set date for conclave to choose the next pope

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VATICAN CITY — The College of Cardinals held its first general meeting Monday morning since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, but the cardinals did not choose a start date for the conclave from which the next pope will emerge.

“There was no decision taken for the conclave,” the Rev. Tom Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said during a news briefing here. “We have no information on the date of the conclave.”

“I think we are just feeling our way right now,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said in a subsequent meeting that American cardinals held with reporters.

“We’d like to be done before Holy Week,” the week before Easter, said Cardinal Francis E. George, the archbishop of Chicago. Easter is March 31. “I would assume others would be of the same mind,” he added.

Cardinals have said they expect at least a few days of meetings before the conclave begins, as they get a better sense of the issues facing the church in different parts of the world but also of one another. Some experts have suggested that a shorter period before the start of the conclave could benefit a better-known candidate, while a longer period could allow a lesser-known candidate to emerge.

At 9:30 a.m. Monday, the cardinals entered an auditorium inside the Vatican according to rank. A video made available by the Vatican showed them chatting and looking through green-bound books reading “Ordo
Rituum Conclavis.” The cardinals took assigned places in crimson leather-upholstered seats. Twelve of the expected electors still haven’t arrived in Rome.

“There seems to be a consensus,” Wuerl said, that they have to wait for all the voting cardinals to arrive before selecting the date of the conclave. “But if you get three canonists, you’ll probably get four interpretations. I think we have to wait for everybody to be there.”

The video showed the cardinals praying and ended with a close-up of Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, standing in the front row.

From the front of the room, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, reminded those assembled of the gravity of their responsibility. Each of the cardinals swore an oath of secrecy on a Bible.

“It’s very, very solemn,” Wuerl said. He said the meeting gave him a sense of a “beginning.”

The cardinals selected three assistants to help the camerlengo, or chamberlain, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who served as Benedict’s secretary of state. The three are two Italians — Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re and Crescenzio Sepe — and Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé.

Sodano then suggested that the college draft a message for the pope emeritus, as Benedict is now known, which the cardinals will formalize in an afternoon session. The Vatican did not disclose the substance of the conversations during the meeting, but said that there were 13 speakers and that their remarks mostly concerned logistical matters, including whether to continue holding afternoon sessions.

The cardinals had a half-hour coffee break for “personal contact and encounters,” according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, and ate lunch from a buffet in a nearby room.

The questions at the news briefing mostly concerned technicalities of the meeting and whether Benedict’s papal ring, a symbol of his authority, had been destroyed. (“You’ll be the first to know,” Rosica said sarcastically.)

But one British reporter turned the subject to Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who admitted Sunday to inappropriate sexual behavior and will not be attending the conclave. The reporter asked whether O’Brien had been called to Rome to discuss his resignation months ago by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops and a strong papal contender, after one of O’Brien’s alleged victims reported his behavior directly to the Vatican.

“Listen, this is a briefing on the general meeting,” Lombardi said. “We aren’t going to spend the whole week talking about Cardinal O’Brien.”

In the news conference with American cardinals after the meeting, Wuerl and George were also asked about O’Brien and whether he had become a topic of discussion during their half-hour coffee break.

“That topic did not come out,” Wuerl said. He said the matter was “between the cardinal and the Holy See.”

“It’s a tragic moment for him, certainly,” George said. “I’m not sure that the personal tragedy of a particular cardinal will have much influence on the discussions.”

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