Pope watchers keeping tabs on Vatican 'backroom boys'

Today begins the General Congregation, the first collective meeting of cardinals since Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Among the scarlet-clad men gathering in the Vatican are the so-called Grand Electors. When it comes to electing a new Pope, they are the Vatican's version of backroom boys.

'Grand Electors' thought to hold special sway in College of Cardinals

The General Congregation, which is currently underway in Vatican City, gives pope watchers an opportunity to see which cardinals will hold the most sway in the conclave, which will elect the next pope. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Some arrived by sleek sedan, some by simple taxi, while others casually strolled in on foot.

As the cardinals entered Vatican City this morning, a few stopped to chat to reporters, but most quickly disappeared through the imposing gates.  

Today begins the General Congregation, the first collective meeting of cardinals since Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Among the scarlet-clad men gathering in the Vatican are the so-called Grand Electors. When it comes to electing a new Pope, they are the Vatican’s version of backroom boys.

"Grand Elector" is the very unofficial name used for the few cardinals with the power, respect, connections and, in some cases, pure force of personality to pull together support for a particular papal possibility.

Just as there are no official candidates for pope, so there are no official campaign teams. But the Grand Electors come close. And in Vatican circles, puzzling out who they’ll be is something of a sport.

Conclave ‘kingmakers’

Historically, every conclave has had its kingmakers. Austrian Cardinal Franz König is said to have been instrumental in putting forward the name of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1978 – the man who became John Paul II. After a conclave is over, exactly what kind of relationship, expectations or obligations exist between the kingmakers and the new pope are unknown. But this isn’t traditional power politics; it is the Vatican, after all. When it comes to the pope, behind-the-scenes politicking has more… grace. 

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During the first of these daily General Congregation meetings, the rules and rituals of a papal election will be explained, election budgets will be set and most likely a date set for the conclave. It’s also a vital opportunity for the Grand Electors – a way to test the electoral waters, behind closed doors.  

It is their first chance to gauge the mood of the College of Cardinals as a whole. Not just the 115 cardinals under the age of 80 who will vote (although some of those have yet to arrive in Rome), but any of the over 200 cardinals who wish to attend the meeting. With much of the Church hierarchy assembled, getting a sense of the room will be strategically vital, as this conclave is considered wide open, with a large number of papabili, or potential popes.

With the Roman Catholic Church facing many challenges around the world, each cardinal will bring his own set of concerns and priorities to these meetings. He’ll also have a shopping list of qualities he’s looking for in the next pope.  

As the General Congregation meetings continue in the days leading up to the conclave, there will be extended conversations on the state of the church around the world. What’s said in those meetings, and how people react to what’s said, will be of great interest to potential kingmakers, as it will help them assess who might support their candidate’s own vision. And who might still need a little scarlet-robed arm-twisting.

Drumming up support

The Grand Electors — through their own personal conversations, and with the support of their own networks — will lobby diligently, and discretely. While the long-told tales of cardinals meeting in secluded restaurants still have some truth, the College of Cardinals is also living in the modern age. It’s just as likely that a cellphone call or text message could tip the balance.

Some Italian newspapers are already reporting that certain influential cardinals are hard at work drumming up support for a particular candidate. Of course, these stories, based as they are on anonymous sources, should be treated with a certain amount of skepticism. But such are often the ways of reporting on the Vatican.

Writing in La Stampa, the deeply connected and respected Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli reports that Cardinal Sodano, the dean of the Catholic Church, and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who has spent years in influential positions inside the Vatican’s curia government, are already pushing for the election of Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil as pope. Not only does Tornielli write about Scherer as a papal candidate but as part of a "ticket," including some names for the next pope’s secretary of state.

Sodano is in a unique position of influence during the period before conclave. As the dean of the College of Cardinals, he’ll lead the General Congregation meetings each day. At 85, he’s too old to vote in the conclave itself, but he’ll certainly have opportunity beforehand to generate discussion.

But Sodano and Re won’t be the only influential cardinals picking candidates to support and working the room.

Well-known Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens of The Tablet says the current (and controversial) secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, will likely push to make his influence felt in the conclave. Mickens also lists Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn as influential voices.

Other names floating around Rome include German Cardinal Walter Kasper and Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini. For those cardinals who become the power brokers of this conclave, the next few days are key.