The general congregation of cardinals in anticipation of the papal conclave begins today in Rome. What happens in a general congregation? Here is a short description from Thomas J. Reese, S.J. Visit his full Q&A on the papal transition here.
The American Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, looked forward to the general congregations because he thought there would be a high-level discussion of issues facing the church. He was disappointed and bored by the proceedings in 2005.
According to the 1996 constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (“Of the Lord’s Whole Flock”), at the first general congregation, the cardinals are given a copy of the constitution and can raise questions about the meaning and implementation of its rules. The part of the constitution regarding the vacancy of the Apostolic See must also be read aloud. This is 3,500-words of tedious prose or 3,100 words if they drop the chapter on papal funerals. The cardinals must swear an oath on the Gospels to observe the constitution’s rules and to maintain secrecy.
In a subsequent congregations, the cardinals will deal with other boring issues such as approving expenses incurred between the resignation and election of a new pope and the logistical preparations for the conclave.
They also pick “two ecclesiastics known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority” who will present to the Cardinals two meditations on the problems facing the Church and on “the need for careful discernment in choosing the new Pope.” The first meditation is given sometime before the conclave while the second is given in the Sistine Chapel right before the first vote.
The most important thing the cardinals will have to decide is when to begin the conclave. The rules call for it beginning 15 days after the death or resignation of the pope, but Benedict revised the rule after his resignation was announced so that the cardinals could begin earlier if all the cardinal electors are present. Some cardinals argue that 15 days is unnecessary because there is no papal funeral, but I ask “what is the hurry?” This is the most important thing the cardinals will ever do in their lives. They should take their time. Sticking to the normal schedule will allow more time for cardinals from outside Rome to get to know each other and to exchange views on who should be pope. Rushing the conclave benefits the current frontrunners and the curial cardinals who already know all the cardinals.
In the past, the general congregation has only met in the morning. This time they will also meet in the afternoon so that they can get their business done and get into the conclave. This again is a bad idea. Tying up the cardinals in meaningless meetings reduces the time for informal interaction prior to the conclave.
The general congregation meetins are presided over by the dean of the college, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.