VATICAN CITY—The next pope’s ideal profile began to take shape on Tuesday as cardinals held a second day of pre-conclave talks—a man with pastoral experience, missionary energy and few ties to the Vatican’s unruly government.
Cardinals waved cheerfully to journalists at the gates of the Vatican but declined to divulge details of the closed-door debate on who among them could be the best candidate for the papacy following Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation.
Vatican experts say one of the hot-button issues now uniting many of the cardinals is the need to choose a new leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics capable of putting his stamp on the Roman Curia, the central government of the Church.
“There is definitely a lot of reflection going on in the Catholic world on the governance of the Catholic Church and how to improve it,” said US Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Secret papal documents leaked to the press last year alleged corruption and intrigue in the Vatican administration and unearthed infighting which many hope the new pope will tackle.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said the electors “need to look attentively at the work of the Curia in recent years. The Curia is there at service to the holy father.”
Though the centuries-old bureaucracy should serve the papacy, it has the power to block or water down papal decisions and has been criticized for playing politics under Benedict.
“What began as a trickle has become a torrent in the last 24 hours of cardinals insisting that the number one issue is governance,” said expert John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.
This might mean choosing someone who has no previous ties to the opaque Vatican bureaucracy, such as Italian Angelo Scola, who could appeal because “he knows the lay of the land but has never been a Vatican official,” Allen said.
He also has much more extensive pastoral experience than Joseph Ratzinger did before he became pope—but so does Brazilian Odilo Scherer, “an old Vatican hand (who) brings together concrete pastoral experience and strong governor skills,” Allen said.
The “winning ticket,” according to many watchers would be a pope with strong pastoral skills—such as the popular Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines or South African Wilfrid Napier—whose right-hand man, the Secretary of State, could be Italian.
Although over a quarter of the cardinal electors are Italian, many prelates have been pushing for leadership of the Church to be distanced from the hugely embarrassing Vatileaks scandal in Rome.
“The ability to govern is very important. It would appear that substantial problems have been identified through Vatileaks, these need to be addressed,” Australian cardinal George Pell told the Vatican Insider newspaper, calling for a pope who can “improve the morale of the Curia.”
“We need somebody who is a strategist, a decision-maker, a planner, somebody who has got strong pastoral capacities already demonstrated so that he can take a grip of the situation and take the Church forward,” he said.
US cardinal Francis George said the electors would be asking “those cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia as to what they think needs to be changed,” adding that the frankest debating took place over the coffee breaks between the official talks.
Among other voices, there are those who insist parts of the world which have been under-represented so far should have a shot at the papacy, including candidates from Latin America, the world’s most Catholic continent.
Should one of their own not be favored, experts say Latin American cardinals could back Canadian Marc Ouellet, who has spent part of his career as a missionary in Colombia and is a keen pastoral figure who also has experience within the Vatican.
It is considered untoward to campaign openly for the papal job, and blushing candidates pressed by journalists modestly brush aside suggestions they may be the next on St. Peter’s chair.
“That’s an Alice in Wonderland story, my being elected pope. There are times when I see some of the headlines I laugh a little because it doesn’t jibe with what I see going on,” said DiNardo.
When asked if he thought he would soon be donning the papal red shoes, O’Malley pointed to his robes and said: “I have worn this uniform for 40 years and I expect to continue wearing it!”
The Vatican said Tuesday that the date for the conclave could be set before all cardinals have arrived, despite the fact that four electors are still missing from the roll call.
Spokesman Federico Lombardi said that what was key was that those missing were given enough time to get to the Vatican before the secret election begins. Some were expected to arrive Wednesday.
In the meantime, the debate continues among cardinals not only in the Vatican meetings but also in private talks in pontifical colleges and private apartments, away from the harsh media gaze.
Little is likely to filter through as they have all now sworn a solemn oath not to reveal details about the election on pain of excommunication.