VATICAN CITY — At the conclusion of a news conference here late last year, reporters rushed the stage in the hopes of getting a word with Marc Ouellet, a Canadian cardinal who even then was topping many short lists to be the next pope. As the reporters called “your eminence” and waved business cards in the air, he politely smiled, stepped back and disappeared through a door, stage left.
Ouellet, who had come to talk about the church in the Americas, apparently had little interest in discussing anything else, especially himself. The resignation of Benedict XVI has only reinforced the reticence of the pope’s potential successors. In the Vatican, even a whiff of self-aggrandizement is tantamount to sacrilege, explicit politicking is a surefire way to leave the conclave as a cardinal. The non-campaign campaign is an institution in its own right and the antithesis of America’s extravagant electioneering.
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When one of the cardinals is elected pope, he will quickly have to change from red robes to white ones, posing a unique challenge to the tailors who of create the next pope's first garment.
“Campaigning?” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, said in an interview Sunday in Rome. “If it were to happen I think that it probably wouldn’t be all that well received. It’s sort of ‘Come on. Get with it, you are out of step. That isn’t the way we do this.’ ”
Monday marks the beginning of the unofficial race to choose the 266th pope, as cardinals hold a series of closed-door gatherings, eventually leading to the conclave from which the next pontiff will emerge. The talks will include much more than logistics. The cardinals will mull the major challenges facing the church but also get to know each other. The 115 electors in attendance will listen with a discerning ear to their colleagues’ ideas — and to their ability to inspire.
“The election is not understood in the same framework as the political elections in the United States,” said Wuerl, who noted that here, the Holy Spirit is believed to play a primary role. He said that between the formal speeches of the prelates, there would be an extended “coffee break” during which they would get a better sense for each other’s personalities and problems. “But now that you’ve met someone and he tells you — you know, in my country this is the issue we are facing — now when he speaks you have a human being to connect to the idea,” Wuerl said, adding that he would like the next pope to have “pastoral experience enough to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m talking about because I’ve done it.’ ”
In 2005, few cardinals needed to get to know Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and one of the Vatican’s powerhouses, he worked closely with Pope John Paul II and often received cardinals on their visits to Rome.
When John Paul died, it was Ratzinger who served as the dean of the College of Cardinals, overseeing the general assembly meetings. And it was Ratzinger who delivered the homily at John Paul’s funeral. The address galvanized support for Ratzinger, who, after four ballots and within 24 hours of the Sistine Chapel doors closing, emerged on the balcony as Benedict XVI.