In 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s highly visible doctrinal watchdog, seemed to benefit from the quick turnaround.
“It’s an open secret that last time, the cardinals didn’t know each other that well,” said Thavis, who added that cardinals who run dioceses around the world would generally prefer a longer time period to allow the views and voices of the lesser-known among them to be heard. This time, nearly half of the cardinals have participated in a previous conclave. “They don’t want to be rushed like last time, when they picked the most familiar face.”
An apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996 stipulated that the cardinals had to wait at least 15 days after a pope’s death to begin a conclave, giving their colleagues time to get to Rome and attend the funeral of the deceased patriarch.
Benedict’s resignation may have granted him the fantasy of attending, or at least reading about, his own funeral, but it also has created a great deal of confusion. On Monday, he amended the conclave law, giving the College of Cardinals the authority to choose the date to start the selection process.
As it now stands, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, will on Friday convoke the cardinals’ first assembly, meetings in which the gathered princes of the church chat formally about the issues before them. Eight years ago, then-Cardinal Deacon Ratzinger chaired 13 General Congregations in the Vatican’s Synod Hall. Once the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, Ratzinger was chosen on the fourth ballot, within 24 hours of the doors closing.
It is likely that the cardinals will need a couple of meetings for the ice to break and for such major themes as the direction of the papacy and the reforms needed in the Curia to take shape. Thavis said the lack of an obvious candidate might prompt the cardinals to stay out of the conclave as long as possible, even weeks, to avoid an extended stay in the Sistine Chapel, where politicking among cardinals is even more taboo than it is outside the Vatican walls. A lengthy conclave could bring with it the pressure of thinking that the whole world considers the cardinals indecisive — or worse, bereft of a solid candidate.