As their church's cardinals gathered in Vatican City to select a new pope, Catholic schoolchildren in the Baltimore area joined the worldwide buzz over the secret balloting process in an online chat with a fairly well-placed source: Archbishop William E. Lori.
"I'm not going to predict who the Holy Father is going to be," Lori told eighth-grade students at 20 schools in the Baltimore Archdiocese on Monday. "But what we can't miss is that at least two of the American cardinals have been spoken about as possible candidates."
Lori, who took over almost a year ago as head of the Baltimore archdiocese, the oldest in the U.S., noted that the New York and Boston cardinals, Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, respectively, have emerged as potential vote-getters when the conclave to select a replacement for the retired Pope Benedict XVI begins Tuesday.
The church's 115 cardinals, who will pick a pope from within their ranks, have been attending a series of pre-conclave gatherings since March 4. They have been discussing a myriad of issues facing the church — so many that some cardinals tried to extend the talks and delay the beginning of papal balloting.
The effort ultimately was unsuccessful, and the cardinals concluded their advance meetings Monday morning. They spent the rest of the day talking privately among themselves over who should replace the 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month, saying he no longer had the strength to carry out his duties.
Pope Benedict's surprise resignation — the first in nearly 600 years — as well as recent church sex scandals and mismanagement of the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, has heightened interest in this week's papal conclave, Lori said in an interview after the online chat.
"No doubt about it, the church has been in the spotlight," said Lori, who recently found himself in the midst of another issue facing the church when he led the American church's high-profile fight with the White House over a mandate to include contraception in insurance plans.
"In a time of transition, various questions are going to come to the forefront," he said. "The role of the next Holy Father is to address such problems effectively and drive forward the church's mission to teach the gospel."
On Tuesday, the cardinals will attend a pre-conclave Mass with the public in St. Peter's Basilica before filing into the Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. local time for the first ballot.
With a two-thirds majority required to select a pope, it is unlikely a pope will be selected in the first round of balloting. French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois has said there are as many as a dozen candidates who might be named in the first round of ballots.
The cardinals are scheduled to vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon every day starting on Wednesday until they make their selection.
The cardinals' selection will provide a window into the direction that the majority would like the church to go after some scandal-plagued years.
For instance, the Vatican bank has long been tainted by money-laundering allegations. While Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, on Monday addressed attempts to bring transparency to the bank, the cardinals are said to be to be split into roughly two camps. There are those who wish to reform the bureaucracy and back Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, and those who work at the Vatican who back Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, who has himself worked in the Curia.
Other cardinals, such as the Americans Dolan and O'Malley as well as the Canadian, Marc Ouellet, are expected to garner some early votes as well.
One contender to become pope is an African — the Ghanaian cardinal, Peter Turkson; if selected, he would be the fourth from that continent to become pope. Turkson heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which was started in 1967 and focuses on social justice and human rights.
"Now, I'm not taking bets on who the new Holy Father is going to be," Lori told the Baltimore students Monday, "but it's nice to know there is an African cardinal who is in the running."
He also said, "It's kind of nice that really for the first time Americans, U.S. citizens and a citizen of Canada, are being seriously mentioned to become the Holy Father."
Lori said he thought the conclave may be short, given that the cardinals have already been meeting in Vatican City for a week. But some church watchers have said discussions about how the new pope would confront challenges could lengthen the conclave.
In the meantime, Vatican insiders and regular Catholics alike continue speculation over whose names might turn up on the cardinals' ballots, which Lori described to the school students on Monday as rectangular pieces of paper that read, "I elect as supreme pontiff…" with a blank space to write a name.
Lori said he will learn who the new pope is when everyone else does — "when the white smoke comes out" from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, signaling that the cardinals have made their selection.
Students read questions submitted by their schools to Lori about the conclave, whose responses were heard through speakers set up in classrooms. At Our Lady of Victory on Wilkens Avenue in Baltimore County, girls in plaid skirts and boys in ties watched on a laptop and projector screen a live stream of students asking Lori questions.
While Lori is not a cardinal and thus not eligible to be a papal elector, his predecessor in Baltimore, Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, will be casting votes. O'Brien, who holds the title of archbishop emeritus of Baltimore, left in May 2012 after then Pope Benedict named him grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a Catholic order of knights based in Rome. It promotes Christianity in the Holy Land.
O'Brien's predecessor, Cardinal William H. Keeler, was the last sitting head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore to participate in a conclave, helping to elect Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Lori told the students that the cardinals will meet in the Sistine Chapel under secure conditions, with their cellphones and other gadgets taken away, a sweep of the facility to uncover any recording or transmitting devices, and staff being sworn to secrecy.
"The cardinals have to remain separated the whole time. They can't give interviews. They can't be talking to other people," said Lori, describing how the Vatican maintains the "integrity" of the vote.
"Cardinals are not permitted to bring in their cellphones or their smartphones or their iPads in there. They can't even have a TV or radio," he said. "If you can imagine living without any of those things for a couple of days, that alone should make you want to pray for the cardinals."
Lori gave the students some behind-the-scenes insights into the conclave, saying he has stayed at the 130-room guesthouse, Casa Santa Marta, near St. Peter's Basilica, where the cardinals will sleep.
"The food is pretty good," he said, "and they actually have a place where you can exercise. But I don't know that all the cardinals use the elipticals."
He also told them that although the staff can't have 115 white vestments tailor-made for each cardinal in case he's elevated to the papacy, there will be three garments that should fit almost all of them. One will be for a "tall and heavy" type, another "short and heavy" and a third that should fit "a medium-sized pope."
"They don't really have one for the skinny guys," Lori said.
Sue Naylor, religion teacher at Our Lady of Victory, said the chat brought a real-life element to the church history that the eighth-grade students have been studying this year.
"It's history in the making," Naylor said.
"What an experience it was," said Emma Olszewski, 13, whom teachers selected to read the school's question to Lori. "I would never have thought I would have a chance to do that."
Students seemed most awed by the cardinals being on digital lockdown during the conclave.
"I think it would be pretty hard not having any electronics," said Megan Quinn, also 13.
While the new pope will be announced by the traditional puff of white smoke, this year a group of Catholic University students is offering through popealert.com to send a text as soon as that signal is spotted in Vatican City.
Principal Wendy Cottrell said she was glad to see students so engaged in the conclave through modern means of communications. "I loved using new technology to bring the world into the classroom," Cottrell said.
Lori said that for all the speculation over who the cardinals may choose, and when, the result is beyond anyone's control. At least, anyone on Earth.
"It's simply a time for prayer and trust. Ultimately, the church is in the Lord's hands. We're really only his instrument," he said. "It's actually a wonderful thing to stand with Catholics around the world and learn the news."
Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.
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