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Don’t look now, but the next papal conclave has begun

In this file photo, before entering the conclave, cardinals concelebrate Mass for the election of the Roman pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 12, 2013. (OSV News photo/Paul Haring, CNS)

In case you didn’t notice, the process of choosing the next pope has begun. No, Pope Francis is still going strong and the cardinals didn’t slip back into the Vatican under cover of night and immediately convene in conclave. But that doesn’t mean the selection process isn’t happening. Look closely and you can see it at work in the sort of speculation and maneuvering that typically precede a papal election.

In discussing this subject, it’s important to say at the start that Pope Francis looks to be in good health for a man his age — 87 before the year is out. Yes, he uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair to get around, but many elderly people do the same. And he keeps up a grueling schedule of travel, meetings, and special events that many younger men would hesitate to tackle.

Note, too, that although a few years ago he was talking about resignation as some day a possibility for him, more recently he has taken to saying that being pope is a lifelong job that he means to see through to the end.

But the signs that we are in a pre-conclave period are there, just the same.

One obvious sign is the appearance in the media, here and there, of lists of papabile — names of men, almost always cardinals, whom the journalists compiling the lists consider to have a reasonable chance of being elected. While the results sometimes are far-fetched, that is no deterrent to the imaginative skills of some of my colleagues. Personally, I have a notion that the choice could well be an Asian or African cardinal — and there are several Asians and Africans who qualify as papabile.

More significant than papabile lists, however, are things Pope Francis himself has been saying and doing. The Pope has not been talking about leaving the scene in the near future, but there is no question that he has been actively engaged in setting the stage for the choice of a successor who, he hopes, will continue to pursue his great project of creating a synodal Church.

This is most clearly the case in his choice of new cardinals — the men, that is, who will one day be voting for the next pope. When Francis formally installs 21 new members in the College of Cardinals at the end of this month, he will have named over 70% of the electors who some day will be doing that.

Another part of this picture is the Synod on Synodality that opens October 4 at the Vatican and continues to October 29, with a second session for reaching decisions and making recommendations scheduled for October of next year.

More directly related to the choice of the next pope than anything the Synod on Synodality says or does is the light that their participation in this event will shed on the attitudes and capabilities of potential candidates for the papacy. Simply stated, the Synod on Synodality, viewed from that perspective, will be a kind of large-scale, semi-public audition for a number of the men who may be thought to have a reasonable chance of one day becoming the 266th successor of St. Peter as pastor of the universal Church.

This is not to say these synod participants will not be interested in the synod itself. They will. But they will also be aware that what they say and do in that setting is being observed and noted by men who, perhaps fairly soon, will be choosing the next pope.
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Russell Shaw, a veteran journalist and writer, is the author of more than 20 books, including three novels. His latest book is “Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.” (OSV)

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