The Catholic Church took one teeny tiny baby step toward picking a new pope today as 140-odd Catholic cardinals met at the Vatican for what was essentially the opening ceremonies of the papal election process.
All cardinals, even those over 80 who are therefore too old to vote for the next pope in the conclave, can attend the General Congregations during the period between popes, known as the sede vacante. All but 12 of the participating cardinal electors were at today's meeting, according to the Vatican. The stragglers are expected to arrive, along with 60 or so other cardinals not yet present, either later Monday or Tuesday. Apparently, in the 45-minute meeting, the cardinals discussed but did not set a date for the beginning of the conclave, the secret meetings in which the electors pick the next pope. That date will likely be set once all the electors arrive. And they'll probably be in a hurry to start the process.
Thanks to a rule change by Benedict XVI, the conclave can begin pretty much once all the electors are present. Previously, the conclave began no sooner than 15 days after the end of the previous pope's reign. But Holy Week begins March 24, and the traditional waiting period would have made it nearly impossible for the conclave to elect and install a successor by then.
So, what did the cardinals accomplish Monday? Here's the Vatican press office's description of the morning meeting:
The gathered cardinals swore to keep secret the deliberations for the election of the future Pope, after which the Cardinal dean, Angleo Sodano, read the oath in Latin, everyone present reciting along with him. After that, each cardinal, according to their order of precedence came forward and took the oath before a Crucifix and with their hand on the Gospels. This process occupied a good portion of the meeting's time.
They also agreed to send a greeting to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
According to Reuters, relying on an anonymous cardinal, the first General Congregation may not have been all pomp and circumstance. Some cardinals are reportedly requesting to be briefed on the secret papal report detailing corruption and incompetency in the Vatican. That report, as The Slatest explained earlier, has only been seen by four people: the pope emeritus and the three cardinals who put it together. Benedict XVI had ruled before his resignation that only the next pope should be able to see the dossier.