And Now, "Vatishock"
Indeed, it's showtime – and in an eerie confluence of events, the day of the first papal resignation since the turn of the 14th century saw lightning hit the dome of St Peter's.
According to some accounts, it may have even happened twice... as if the scene wasn't already dramatic enough.
Even if everybody's clamoring for speculation on potential successors, right now, it would seem that any pondering of papabili is more an exercise in comedy than anything else – only when the bulk of the cardinal-electors are something other than blown out of the water at the reality they now face in a couple weeks will that be a different story.
Beyond the time-honored maxim that "He who enters the Conclave as 'Pope' exits a cardinal," it would seem that the nature and timing of yesterday's announcement has changed the game to such a degree as to turn the usual buzzmill on its head. Among other examples, asked yesterday whether it was only now that, despite having worn the scarlet for some time, its responsibility actually "becomes real," a shaken-sounding red-hat created by B16 – and, ergo, soon to enter his first Conclave – replied "No question about it."
Over his nearly eight-year reign, Benedict has chosen more than a majority of the College which'll elect his successor, among them eight of the 11 Americans now eligible to cast a vote.
On another front, the timing of the election remains perhaps the key unresolved question (of which there are currently many), one complicated both by the uniqueness of a resignation and the liturgical calendar.
While the Conclave rules currently in force – John Paul II's 1996 Universi Dominici Gregis – stipulate the fifteen to twenty day window from the moment a vacancy is triggered for all the cardinals to arrive in Rome, that period would normally be necessary to encompass two things we won't be having this time: the preparations for and carrying out of a papal funeral, then the Novemdiales, the nine days of mourning and prayer for a deceased pontiff's soul.
What's more, though, to keep the usual period would place the timetable of the election, and the subsequent inauguration of the new Pope, right up against Holy Week – a time when a majority of the College have their most intense and important moments of the year at home as they head dioceses around the world.
Considering that Palm Sunday is March 24th, if the UDG norms held with the election beginning on the 15th and, for sake of argument, lasting two or three days, the customary Mass to "inaugurate" the new Petrine ministry wouldn't take place for several more days. Given the preference to have that rite – the modern successor of the coronations of old – on a Sunday, under the preceding timetable, that day would be the 24th, and a confluence of the installation rites with Palm Sunday is simply unconscionable... and not just because the crowd exclaiming "Crucify him!" during the reading of the Passion doesn't signal the best omen at the opening of a new pontificate
In other words, we're as likely as not to see the period shortened – as-is, with the vacancy set for the 28th, the electors have considerably more time to prepare and focus than they would in a papal death scenario.
The full faculties and powers of office still his until the hour his "abdication" becomes effective, Benedict XVI's final public audience will be on the 27th, and as of yet, no newly-devised formalities to mark his renunciation of Peter's chair in life have been announced.
While the Papal Apartment will ostensibly be sealed shortly thereafter to keep with the centuries-old tradition of the sede vacante, at a briefing on the transition this morning, the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ said that the maintenance of the other customary rituals surrounding a pontificate's end – among them the smashing of the Fisherman's Ring, symbolizing the end of a Pope's authority – are still being studied by Curial officials. No definitive decision likewise remains on the retiring Pope's title, name and status upon his departure from office.
In the meanwhile, one notable concession has been made, both to the heightened interest of the moment and, it would appear, to the pontiff's limited energies: the site of the Pope's Ash Wednesday rites tomorrow, held for centuries at the day's ancient stational church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, has been moved to St Peter's, keeping the usual time of 5pm.
In making the shift, no mention has been made of the outdoor "penitential" procession that traditionally precedes the Mass, which has apparently been nixed.