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How to Cover the Catholic Church

The period in between popes is called an


, during which time

most Vatican business is suspended. In preparation for the coming conclave,

cardinals gather for daily meetings called

general congregations

. The press

office will release some information from the meetings, but most of the pro-

ceedings are confidential. That shouldn’t stop you from trying to reach cardi-

nals on your own; just don’t be surprised if they don’t answer your questions

directly, and don’t expect any specific prognostications as to so-called front-

runners. Keep in mind that while only cardinals under the age of 80 enter the

conclave to vote, cardinals age 80 and above can still help shape the election

by participating in the general congregations.

In the run-up to the conclave, Catholic News Service will carry biographi-

cal articles on cardinals who may be influential during the election. They’re

an indispensable resource, referencing biographical information; the curial,

academic and diocesan positions cardinals have held; and some key issues

they’ve spoken on or written about.

The conclave itself, when the world’s cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel

to elect a new pope, is one of the Catholic Church’s most fascinating rituals.

But when they say secret they mean secret. Don’t even hope for any leaks.

When the new pope emerges onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s

Square, he could be a known quantity, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had headed up the Congregation of the

Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years, a high-profile position that garnered him a

lot of press. Pope Francis, on the other hand, was relatively unknown to most

of the world when he was elected.


The word


comes from Latin, meaning “sitting together.” In effect, it’s

a meeting, and other denominations also use the term. At the Vatican, it signi-

fies a high-level meeting of cardinals. The most common type of consistory is

an “ordinary” one, usually in which sainthood causes are formally resolved or

new cardinals are created. The other, rarer type is called “extraordinary.”

In the case of a consistory for new cardinals, the pope announces the

names of those he’s chosen to receive the “red hat” and the date of the con-

sistory beforehand, perhaps a month or two in advance. If such a consistory

brings you to Rome, it’s probably because your hometown archbishop was

named a cardinal, and you’ll mainly focus on him. You’ll want to find out as

much of his personal schedule as you can, as well as the general schedule of

the consistory and related Vatican events.