Watching the opening of the conclave with the sound turned off

I watch very little TV and the only time I watch the cable news channels is if the treadmill I select at the gym is underneath a TV turned to one of those channels. Even then, I don’t hear what the pundits and reporters are saying because my earbuds are firmly fixed and I’m either listening to music of my choice or a podcast (often that of

This morning CNN was showing the mass and the procession of the cardinals into the Sistine Chapel. As liturgical processions often are, it was impressive. And as those of us interested in such matters usually do, I noticed the variety of vestments. Some cardinals were wearing elaborate lace cottas; others had more simple garb. I spied one that looked very much like my own. As is often the case in liturgical processions, the camera caught the hand of a bishop (? he was in a purple cassock) stretching up to rearrange the stole of the cardinal in front of him.

Such processions are intended to convey the majesty and power of the Church. That’s true whether it’s a procession of cardinals or a more simple procession at a parish Eucharist. This one did so. As the cardinals moved from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s to the Renaissance beauty of the Sistine Chapel with its frescoes by Michelangelo, the images sent around the world were meant to signal to all of us the power, majesty, and endurance of the Roman Catholic Church.

The symbolism, or intended symbolism, of the cardinals’ procession this morning, with all of its pomp, its appeal to historical precedent, and frankly its nostalgia, seems rather hollow in the face of the crises facing the Roman Catholic Church and religion in general in the west. I was struck by the narrow demographic reality of those who will elect the pope, the ostensible head of a church with over a billion members. 115 cardinal electors, all of them male of course, the majority European. Their average age (almost 72 years old) is slightly above that of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Remarkably, that’s above the average age of the group that elected John Paul II in 1978 (67). The youngest is 53: Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of India. 58% of them were named by Pope Benedict XVI. 35% are members of, or retired from, the papal curia (24% in 2005) They are not representative of the world-wide church; but then they are not meant to be. More on the numbers here or here.

Writers for the National Catholic Reporter have this to say about current speculation concerning which cardinals have the inside track:

Many here, following lead of the Italian press, are calling this “a race with four horses.” Scola is said to be in post position, with Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Brazilian Cardinal Pedro Odilo Scherer and at least one American following.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan seems to be gaining supporters, the Italian newspapers say, but Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl is a possible compromise candidate should the cardinals be unable to find a pope in the first few rounds of balloting.

The Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia, has been the subject of sustained criticism in the 10 meetings, or general congregations, the cardinals have met in over the last week.

The Internet, and especially social media, have dramatically altered the conclave, or at least the world’s experience of it. The difference from 2005 is remarkable. My twitter feed is full of jokes, links to commentary, and comments about the election. There is intense interest in it, even among those of us who are not Roman Catholic. On one level, I suspect that interest is generated by the appeal of contests–whether they be elections or sporting events.

And we might wonder with Garry Wills whether the next pope even matters. Sure, he might be able to make changes in papal bureaucracy; if he’s a miracle worker, he might find a way through the sexual abuse crisis. But can a pope do anything about the increasing secularism of the West and increasing religious conflict elsewhere in the world? We are in an age of globalization but there are also powerful centrifugal forces at work (just ask the Anglican Communion). Will the Roman Catholic Church be any more successful in negotiating among the crises and the cultural forces that are challenging it? Can the head of a hierarchy increasingly isolated from the daily lives and concerns of the vast majority of humanity offer the good news of Jesus Christ in words that connect with them and their experience?

Watching the procession from St. Peter’s to the Sistine Chapel with the sound off may be an apt metaphor for the ultimate significance of what’s taking place in the conclave today and in the days to come.

1 thought on “Watching the opening of the conclave with the sound turned off

  1. You raise good questions and the temptation is to say that no one, not even a Pope, can be expected to have much influence over the cultural trends and deeply rooted social forces that seem to shape societies in the 21st century. Yet, sometimes individuals do manage to bend the trajectory of history one way or another. Let’s hope that Francis I will be able to influence at least some of his followers toward a more progressive, libertarian vision of Catholicism. It would be wise, however, to turn off the sound and watch the actions before coming to a judgment on any of this.

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