VATICAN CITY -- They came, they took an oath of secrecy, and they agreed to send a message to the previous pope, whose resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and unleashed a new wave of scandals.
The cardinals meeting to choose the next pope started work Monday on planning their conclave. Benedict XVI remained holed up at the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, his temporary retirement home while cardinals pick his successor.
And in a sartorial symbol of the impending transition, a tailor on Monday unveiled three new white papal cassocks—small, medium and large—that will be sent to the Vatican so the new pope has something to wear as soon as he’s elected.
“We need to deliver these three garments before the conclave starts because obviously we cannot enter inside the conclave once it starts,” tailor Lorenzo Gammarelli said Monday.
Of the 115 cardinals who can vote, 103 were on hand for Monday’s inaugural pre-conclave meeting, which over the coming days will discuss the problems of the church and give the cardinals a chance to get to know one another better.
And so they prayed together, chatted over coffee and 13 of them intervened to discuss organizational matters.
The fact that 12 more cardinals are still en route to Rome will mean a delay in setting a date for the conclave since the dean of the College of Cardinals has said a date won’t be finalized until all the cardinals have arrived.
Among the first orders of business was the oath of secrecy each cardinal made, pledging to maintain “rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff.”
The cardinals then agreed to send Benedict XVI a message on behalf of the group; the text was being worked on, the Vatican said.
The core agenda item is to set the date for the conclave and put in place the procedures to prepare for it, including closing the Sistine Chapel to visitors and getting the Vatican hotel cleared out and de-bugged, lest anyone try to listen in on the secret conversations.
The first day of discussion was rocked by revelations of scandal, with Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien admitting that he had engaged in sexual misconduct not befitting a priest, archbishop or cardinal.
O’Brien last week resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and said he wouldn’t participate in the conclave after four men came forward with allegations that he had acted inappropriately with them—the first time a cardinal has stayed away from a conclave because of personal scandal.
The Vatican refused to confirm or deny whether it was investigating O’Brien, and refused to say when it learned of the allegations against him.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi repeated his statement from last week that the original four accusers had sent their complaint via the papal ambassador to Britain, and that the then-pope had been informed.
Pressed to respond to reports of a purported fifth accuser, who reportedly approached the Vatican directly in October with accusations, another spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica read O’Brien’s statement admitting to sexual misconduct and said the Vatican would say no more.
Separately, the Vatican is still reeling from the fallout of the scandal over leaked papal documents, and the investigation by three cardinals into who was behind it.
Italian news reports have been rife with unsourced reports about the contents of the cardinals’ dossier. The leaks themselves confirmed a fairly high level of dysfunction within the Vatican bureaucracy, with intrigues, turf battles and allegations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism at the highest levels of the church hierarchy.
In one of his last audiences before resigning, Benedict met with the three cardinals who prepared the report and decided that their dossier would remain secret. But he gave them the go-ahead to answer cardinals’ questions about its contents.
Another topic facing the cardinals is the reason they’re here in the first place: Benedict’s resignation and its implications. His decision to end 600 years of tradition and retire rather than stay on the job until death has completely altered the concept of the papacy, and cardinals haven’t shied from weighing in about what that means for the next pope.