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.
“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.
But Benedict’s resignation deprived his would-be successors a public platform on which to shine.
The closest thing to a prime speaking spot was filled last month by the eloquent Italian Gianfranco Ravasi, a papal contender and head of the pontifical council for culture who preached to Benedict and the other church leaders during Lenten spiritual exercises. (The pope called the remarks beautiful. One member of the Roman Curia — the Vatican bureaucracy — called them “long.”) An active Twitter user with more than 40,000 followers, Ravasi quoted from the Book of Matthew on Feb. 26: “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Two days later he thanked his followers and added, “I take my leave of you for a few days.” Since then, nothing.
At a press conference a few hours before Benedict’s official retirement Thursday, a trio of American cardinals talked to the English-speaking press in an auditorium at the Pontifical North American College. Among them was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, considered, along with New York’s Timothy Dolan, the most plausible of the distant long-shot Americans.
O’Malley said that he had been preparing for his first conclave — “one of the most important things” in his life — by praying and researching. “I’ve tried to read as much about the other cardinals using the Internet a lot,” he said, adding that his reading list had included the daily profiles of potential candidates by John L. Allen Jr., a leading Vatican expert at the National Catholic Reporter.
“Some of them have been helpful,” O’Malley joked, an apparent reference to Allen identifying him as the most likely American candidate.
And when asked about his papal prospects in an interview with the CBC to be aired Monday, Ouellet, the Canadian prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, said, “I have to be ready even if I think that probably others could do it better,” adding that while his “name is circulating,” he was “very careful” not to play a part in media speculation.
Vatican officials have rolled their eyes at remarks made by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. In a recent interview with the British Telegraph, Turkson ruminated on the significance of possibly becoming the first black pope. “If I was elected pope it would signal a lot of [personal] change,” he said. “Very big change in a lot of regards.”
False modesty, strategic blandness and keeping one’s head down are of course not unique to papal elections. Hillary Rodham Clinton has in the past proven herself uniquely successful at non-campaigning campaigning. (It’s the-out-in-the-open part that’s been less successful.) Howard Wolfson, the communications director of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, said he saw some parallels between Clinton’s tactics in her presidential bid and those of the aspiring cardinals.
“When then-Senator Clinton was asked whether she was thinking of running for president, she would often say, ‘I’ve got more than enough to say grace over as it is,’ ” he said. “Sounds like a line that might work particularly well under these circumstances.”
The Catholic Church has considerably more experience with the art of the clandestine campaign, which for nearly 1,500 years has been a necessity as much as a strategy.
Back — way, way back — in 499, a Roman synod banned papal electors from promising votes to a future candidate while the current pope was in power. Even attending meetings where such votes were pursued became verboten. The ban was codified a few decades later when the Roman Senate objected to Felix IV instructing electors to name his archdeacon, Boniface, as his successor. The body passed a formal edict forbidding talk of a pope’s successor while he lived.
The rules have since been relaxed. “I would imagine each of us has some kind of a list of primary candidates and then others secondary and tertiary,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told reporters last week. “That’s what shapes often the smaller, more intimate conversation. ‘What do you know about this candidate, and can you tell me how he would react to this? What sort of person is he? What’s the personality?’ ”
Often that happens over a plate of pasta or a glass of wine or, as Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York, put it, over “cafe and biscotti.”
Egan had just entered the North American College with the former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick and Dolan. As the three prelates, dressed in black with white collars, waited for the elevator upstairs, Dolan quickly deferred a question about what he expected from the upcoming week to his elders, who are both older than 80 and as such cannot enter the conclave.
“These are the two veterans who have been through it before — tell him what this week’s like,” Dolan said.
“Cardinal Dolan is going to be praying all the time,” Egan said mischievously, “but with more intensity than ever before, and he is going to be smiling the whole time through.”
The elevator arrived and Dolan excused himself. “I’ve got to get on a phone call,” he said. Egan and McCarrick stayed back to chat. As Egan continued to talk about the “beautiful week” ahead, Dolan looked on uneasily from behind the closing elevator doors.