Getting 115 cardinals to agree to anything is no small order, but when they're tasked with finding a new pope to to heal the divisions that allegedly led to Benedict XVI’s dramatic resignation, observers suggest it may be some time before white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel.
New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan is not among the throngs of pessimists however. According to the Boston Globe, Dolan has been claiming that the election will be wrapped up quickly.
On the eve of the conclave, Dolan reportedly wrote a letter to New York priests, saying: 'My guess is that we'd have a new Successor of Saint Peter by Thursday evening,' according to Dolan’s spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.
Dolan's optimism stood in stark contrast with the more measured take of Chicago Cardinal Francis George. His spokeswoman, Colleen Dolan, told The Associated Press that the cardinal suggested it could be a long affair.
In fact, George even raised the possibility that the cardinals may still be debating by Saturday, when conclave rules require they take a break and spend some time in prayer before resuming voting.
Benedict XVI's shocking resignation has allegedly thrown the church into turmoil, exposing deep divisions among cardinals grappling with conflicting agendas. Some see a need for a new caretaker to clean up the Vatican’s dysfunctional bureaucracy. Others feel a pastor who can inspire the faith of the world's Catholics in a time of waning faith and growing secularism is what's needed.
Before the conclave began, the dean of the College of Cardinals, retired Cardinal Angelo Sodano, reportedly appealed for unity within the church.
'Each of us is therefore called to cooperate with the Successor of Peter, the visible foundation of such an ecclesial unity,' Sodano said.
He was reportedly interrupted by applause from the pews — but not so much from the cardinals — when he referred to the 'beloved and venerated' Benedict XVI and his 'brilliant' pontificate.
Reportedly sitting in the front row to hear this was Benedict’s longtime aide, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who announced that Benedict, now called the Pope Emeritus, was watching the proceedings from the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo.
Although few expected a new pontiff to be elected on the first ballot, the Vatican itself was ready. In the Room of Tears, which gets its name from the weight of the job thrust upon the new pontiff, three sizes of white cassocks hung from a clothes rack. Underneath, seven white shoe boxes were waiting, presumably containing the various sizes of the red leather shoes that popes traditionally wear.
The clothes were delivered on Monday by the papal tailor to ensure that the newly elected pope could change immediately into papal white as soon as he accepts the election. With the words 'Habemus Papam' — or 'We have a pope' — the pontiff then traditionally appears on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to greet the crowd.
But the new conclave is taking place amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the church has seen in decades. Accordingly there’s no apparent front-runner yet, and no indication how long voting will last.