Cardinal Tom Williams tells Joseph Romanos about the process to choose 'a pastor for the whole Catholic world'.
Cardinal Tom Williams has been observing the recent goings-on in the Catholic church in Rome with particular interest from his Waikanae home.
Cardinal Williams, 82, was one of the cardinals in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Most unusually, Pope Benedict has announced he is stepping down at the end of this month and a new pope is to be elected next month.
"I was very, very pleased I could number being in that conclave among the things I have done in my life," Cardinal Williams said. "It was a most absorbing process."
He said he received notification that Pope John Paul II had died, and that he needed to get to Rome as quickly as possible to take part in the congregations of cardinals.
That is a gathering of all cardinals who can make the journey to Rome. The cardinals meet to discuss the challenges facing the church and what sort of leader the church will need in light of those challenges.
"It is an interesting time. Many of the cardinals know each other. For example, I'd been a cardinal for 22 years by then, and had made several trips to Rome and met many of them.
"There were more than 140 in our congregation. Those meetings are held to prepare for the conclave that will elect the pope."
The conclave must vote no fewer than 15 days and no more than 20 after the pope dies. "The conclave is restricted to cardinals under the age of 80. The age limit cut our number back to 113.
"It was a slightly different situation to this time because the pope had died. When there is no pope the college of cardinals becomes responsible for the governance of the church. That lasted about 17 or 18 days last time."
Cardinal Williams said that when the conclave to elect the next pope is formed, it would comprise about 117. "There are now over 200 cardinals, but many are over 80."
The conclave uses the huge Synod Hall, alongside St Peter's, for its meetings. "We sat in a tiered semi-circle. Everyone in the room is expected to participate fully. There is no lobbying or bloc-voting. That would be contrary to the spirit of the exercise.
"After all, we are choosing a pastor for the whole Catholic world."
The cardinal said those participating were encouraged to discuss matters outside the meetings. "Over dinner or at our accommodation, I'd exchange views with other cardinals."
He said that on the 25-hour journey to Rome, he reflected on possible candidates, and that Benedict would have been on his list.
The conclave spoke in Italian and Latin. "The language of the church is Latin, but Italian has become the lingua franca."
"We met on the first afternoon, when there was one ballot. It is a secret ballot, but the results are reported to us fully, right down to those who got one vote. After that the voting papers are burnt.
"If the ballot is inconclusive, the burning papers are mixed with chemicals to produce black smoke. If it is conclusive, chemicals that produce a white smoke are used."
There was no discussion during the conclave meetings.
"There's just the ballot, then the results, and that's it."
The first ballot was usually regarded as testing the waters and at that early point the votes were fairly well spread.
"We had two more ballots the next morning, then reached a result with the first one in the afternoon.
"To be elected pope, a candidate needs two-thirds of the vote."
Cardinal Williams said he was not surprised Benedict came through.
"He had lived in Rome for the best part of 25 years, so was well known to many of the cardinals who had visited over the years.
"He has a towering intellect and is a scholar and probably the leading theologian of his generation. He's also an author.
"He is a little shy, certainly as not outgoing as John Paul II."
His resignation was not a total surprise to Cardinal Williams. "When we voted we never discussed his age [he was a week short of 79]. I don't recall that being a factor. But obviously he now feels he is not healthy enough to continue.
"Being the pope is a huge responsibility. You are looking after 1.2 billion Catholics. I can understand why you would want to feel up to it physically and mentally."
The cardinal said that in 2010 Benedict mentioned the possibility of resigning. "He said a pope couldn't resign merely because he was facing difficulties, but that if he did not have the health to continue, it should be possible to resign. I think it's been on his mind for a year or two.
"Pope Benedict was a close collaborator of John Paul II and would have seen how his failing health was affecting his ability to continue."
Pope Benedict's resignation takes effect from February 28, after which the cardinals will gather to appoint his successor.
Cardinal Williams will not be travelling this time, but will be taking a keen interest in every stage of events leading up to the election.
- The Dominion Post
If you had a choice, which would you prefer on Christmas day?Related story: Sun takes a Christmas holiday