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Twists and turns: Few papal elections were foregone conclusions

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In some 2,000 years of papal elections, only a handful have turned out as predicted, said a Vatican scholar.

That's a lesson worth remembering as cardinals gather to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, said Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican Library.

Piazzoni, whose book, "History of Papal Elections," recounts the twists and turns of conclaves through the centuries, said that only a dozen or so of the elections were foregone conclusions.

And if surprises were common when the College of Cardinals had 30 or 40 members, they are much more likely with 117 voting cardinals from 54 countries around the world, Piazzoni said in an interview.

"When there were 35 cardinals, a group of 10 who were in agreement could control the situation. I think the high number of cardinals in the conclave has completely changed the situation," he said.

Piazzoni said that despite their increased numbers, the cardinals know each other much better today than they did in the past, before transportation became so fast and easy.

"In the past, it often happened that cardinals would only get to know each other at the conclave. That's no longer true -- cardinals see each other quite often: at synods, consistories and other church meetings," he said.

In addition, while it was once rare for a cardinal to leave his diocese, many of them now travel frequently to other countries and continents, forming relationships with fellow cardinals, he said.

"One of the biggest changes in the college is the knowledge the members have of each other," he said.

Piazzoni's interest in papal elections began early. In the first conclave of 1978, when he was 27 and already working in the Vatican, he had Cardinal Karol Wojtyla on his own short list of "papabili" -- but for the second conclave a month later he expected another Italian to be elected.

If Piazzoni has any predictions today, he is keeping them to himself. He does say, however, that cardinal-watchers in Rome tend to magnify the standing of Roman Curia cardinals and overlook those serving in residential dioceses.

"The Curia cardinals are hyperexposed, and we in Rome see them as the most important. But the cardinals arriving from archdioceses around the world will have a different perspective," he said.

Piazzoni said the daily meetings of cardinals before the start of the conclave, called "general congregations," will be important, especially in offering the cardinals over age 80 a chance for input. Only those who were under 80 when the pope died can enter the conclave.

He said he would not be surprised if one or more of the over-80 cardinals are asked to give a presentation at these sessions.

The general congregations will begin small but grow quickly, as cardinals arrive in Rome. With 183 cardinals in the college, these meetings could end up being lengthy, Piazzoni said.

The recent history of conclaves has shown that by the time cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel, they usually have some clear ideas about candidates, Piazzoni said. That's one of the reasons why the last five conclaves have lasted three or fewer days.

He said he expects that to be the case this time, too. Although the rules allow the cardinals to move from a two-thirds majority vote to an absolute majority (more than half) if no pope has been elected after about 12 days, Piazzoni said, it is doubtful the conclave would go on that long.

"Keep in mind that even under Pope Paul VI's rules, the cardinals could have decided, after a certain time, to proceed in another way to elect a pope. So the possibility (of a simple majority vote) already existed, though not in the exact same manner as today," he said.

"The current rules foresee the simple majority option after more than 30 ballots, something that hasn't happened for centuries. The idea that it would go on that long is highly improbable -- though theoretically, anything is possible," he said.


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