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 CNS Story:

CONCLAVE-STAFFORD

U.S. cardinal one of few whose ministry continues despite papal death

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford is one of the very few Vatican cardinals whose ministry at the Vatican did not end with the death of Pope John Paul II.

The 72-year-old cardinal is the "major penitentiary," the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that responds to the requests for forgiveness of people guilty of the most serious sins.

In a recent interview, Cardinal Stafford said he would be carrying out two separate but spiritually related tasks during the conclave period: Making sure penitential petitions are answered and helping to choose the 265th pope.

Church law specifies that Cardinal Stafford must continue to ensure that forgiveness is available at all times to any sinner. He is required to inform the new pope of all actions he took during the period between Pope John Paul's death and the new pope's election.

As Christ's vicar on earth, Pope John Paul delegated his authority to forgive serious sins to Cardinal Stafford. Although the pope is no longer alive, Christ's desire to save people does not weaken, the cardinal said.

"The church as a mother wishes to lessen the burden of guilt and of loneliness," he said.

Petitions that reach the cardinal's office are read immediately, he said, and a response usually is given through the sinner's confessor within 24 hours.

Cardinal Stafford said the Apostolic Penitentiary demonstrates "what the church is all about." Its importance is demonstrated by the fact that the cardinal's aides may send petitions to him even inside the conclave -- one of the very few exceptions to the rule that the cardinals be out of contact with the outside world.

Even before the pope died, Cardinal Stafford said he prayed a lot about the possibility of one day being called to help elect a pope, although he said he would not use the word "overwhelming" to describe the responsibility.

"One is always given the grace to face what one has to face in one's vocation, and one lives with the knowledge that there is God's help always, so one is not overwhelmed," he said.

"But one prays for faith and hope and love; one prays for the cardinal virtues, especially prudence -- that is central -- for discernment and for courage," he said. "And one prays that one will have the help of the Holy Spirit."

While it is a very small group of men charged with electing the leader of a 1-billion-member church, "one cannot be paralyzed," he said.

"Christ is the shepherd of the church. Every pope has realized that, and when cardinals are in the process of facing the daunting task of discerning who is being called by the Spirit, one realizes that it is still Christ who is governing the church and governing the direction the church is taking in that process," Cardinal Stafford said.

The cardinal also said he was not surprised or particularly shocked that London bookmakers were giving odds on certain cardinals' chances of being elected or that newspapers were trying to identify front-runners.

"That has happened in the past," he said, adding that people would speculate and ambassadors would talk about which government supported which cardinal.

"That's normal," he said. "People are asking what direction the church is going to be taking."

Cardinal Stafford said it was a big mistake to assume that since 114 of the 117 cardinal-electors were made cardinals by Pope John Paul, they are all similar.

"There are some very strong personalities with very different views about the future of the church among these men," he said.

"The deep identification with the church, and the church as being the eucharistic body of Christ, is shared by us all," he said, so there is "a genuine community of belief."

"But given that, there is an enormous variety of views, and they are very creative. I think it is a creative tension, because it is found within that one body of Christ," Cardinal Stafford said.

END

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