Many of my Catholic and non-Catholic friends have expressed surprise the Holy Father announced his resignation shortly before one of the busiest seasons in the liturgical year. I can only imagine how physically demanding it must be to be pontiff during Holy Week.
Perhaps by clarifying cannon law to allow conclave to begin before 15 days from his resignation, Pope Benedict was allowing for the possibility a new pope could be elected before Easter. After all, when is the last time we have not had a pope for Easter? Even John Paul II held on till shortly after, appearing by video from his private chapel when he was not physically able to be present for the traditional Good Friday stations at the Coliseum.
This morning, the First General Congregation of Cardinals met to prepare for conclave, but with 12 missing Cardinals with voting privilege (mostly from Germany), it was decided to wait to announce a date for conclave. Instead, the Cardinals agreed to meet later in the day to approve a message that will be sent to the Pope Emeritus.
We have not had an Easter in the modern period without a Pope. Indeed, if my research is correct, the last time was following the death of Clement XIII on February 2, 1769. Clement had died exactly one day before the consistory he convoked to examine the public demand for a general surpression of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Some scholars have suggested Clement was poisoned, but either way the decision would be left to his successor. Conclave began February 15, 1769 and forty-six of the eligibly fifty-seven Cardinals eventually made their way to Rome for the proceedings.
The question of the Society of Jesus dominated discussions of the selection of the new pope. Jesuits had a strong presence in France and Spain, so early arriving Cardinals (largely from Italy) pushed for a speedy election before the French and Spanish cardinals could arrive. Met with protest, they were unsuccessful.
At one point, Joseph II – the Holy Roman Emperor and brother to Marie Antoinette – quietly travelled to Rome and was admitted to conclave, where he freely debated with the Cardinals over the matter of the Jesuits. After lengthy debate, Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli was elected to the seat of Peter as Clement XIV on May 19, almost a full two months after Easter that year (March 26). Threatened with Catholic countries withdrawing from the union of the Church, Clement XIV would ultimately surpress the Society of Jesus in 1773. It would be restored under a different political climate by Pope Pius VII in 1814.
Is it possible we won’t have a Pope this Easter? Absolutely. For starters, as I’ve mentioned previously, the Sistine Chapel remains open for public tours. Once the date of conclave is announced, it will take several days for the chapel to be prepared, which includes the re-installation of an elaborate stove for the burning of ballots, and devices which jam radio and cell phone signals to prevent communications in or out of conclave.
While some Cardinals have expressed a desire to have a pope elected by Easter, others have expressed concern over rushing to such an important decision. After all, a full fifth of the cardinal have only recently been elected, and they are still getting to know their brethren and candidates.
Do we need a pope by Easter? What are your thoughts?