Over-80 cardinals still have role to play in choosing next pope
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When the conclave begins April 18, 66 cardinals will not be allowed into the Sistine Chapel to take part in the voting process that chooses the next pope.
Because of reforms enacted by Pope Paul VI in 1970, cardinals who are age 80 or over by the time the conclave starts are excluded from the closed-door proceedings.
"I missed the cut by a few strokes, as they say in the golfing world," said retired Australian Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, who turned 80 last July.
"It would have been a special occasion," to have been part of the conclave, "but you turn 80 and, there you go," he told Catholic News Service April 13 by phone from Australia.
But just because the octo- and nonagenarians of the College of Cardinals will not get a chance to step up to the plate and vote for the next pope, it does not mean they are not part of the ballgame.
The over-80 cardinals can be part of the preconclave meetings called general congregations. These are daily meetings in which the College of Cardinals prepares for the conclave and handles church business that must be attended to between popes.
The meetings give all cardinals the chance to speak up about the different issues under discussion. The older, more experienced cardinals may even be sought out to offer advice, opinions or thoughts about what would be best for the future of the church.
"Even though (the over-80s) aren't directly influencing the conclave, they do represent the church at large, and they can give others their insights based on their long experience," said Cardinal Cahal Daly, retired archbishop of Armagh, Northern Ireland.
The gatherings are important as well for the elder cardinals, who, being retired, do not have an active episcopate.
"They are hungry for information and views and for sharing people's experience about the church," Cardinal Daly told CNS in a telephone interview from Armagh.
"These meetings talk about the state of the church worldwide" and trigger ideas that would promote "the welfare of the church we all love," he said.
Cardinal Daly, 87, said his doctors advised him not to travel to Rome for health reasons.
"There's a certain sadness that I will not be there, but at this age one has acquired a certain realism that one cannot do what one could do 20 years ago," he said.
Msgr. Charles Burns, a Scottish historian and retired official of the Vatican Archives, said setting an age limit on who can attend a conclave "was not meant to punish" elder members.
Pope Paul instituted the age restrictions "out of regard for the older" cardinals, "to take the burden off of them" having to make the long trip to Rome, said Msgr. Burns.
Cardinal Cassidy, who said he planned to fly from Australia to Rome April 14, said it was "fair to the older men to let them be free to come and take part or not; they are not obliged," as the cardinal-electors are, to get to Rome.
He said even though at 80 he was "in good health and could go (into a conclave) if I had to," he would not favor changing the age restrictions for voting members.
He said too many old or infirm electors "could give a very unpleasant view with cameras showing people being carried up steps" to get into a conclave.
"It might make people wonder, 'Are these the people who will choose the next pope?'" he said.
But just because someone turns 80 "doesn't mean their 'sell-by' date has expired," said a Vatican expert who asked that his name not be used.
Msgr. Burns added, "The cardinal-electors could choose an octogenarian to be pope; he wouldn't last 26 years, but it does show (the over-80s) can't just be cast aside."
Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican Library, said having a ceiling on the voting age actually serves a more practical purpose.
He said having a precise date for cutting off a cardinal's status as elector helps the pope maintain at all times a consistent number of voters for his successor.
"If the church knows that say, by 2010, 20 cardinals will have turned 80 and are no longer eligible to vote, then the pope will know ahead of time and will start preparing to elevate 20 more new cardinals," to take their place, he told CNS.
Otherwise, with no age restrictions, "you wait for a cardinal to die before you can replace him," he said.
By "not knowing when they'll die," a pope would risk having unexpected losses in the number of cardinal-electors and long periods of time before they were replaced, he said.
The age limit "therefore is very wise," Piazzoni said, because it keeps conclave numbers steady and predictable and voters relatively young.
Also, if there were no age limit, "the conclave today would be completely different," said Piazzoni.
For example, since 120 is the maximum number of cardinals allowed to vote in a conclave, No. 121 in age, U.S. Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, would be squeezed out of the proceedings along with the 61 other cardinals younger than he is. With the current age restrictions, 117 cardinals are under 80 and eligible to vote.
When the conclave begins April 18, many over-80 cardinals will be organizing and leading prayers either in Rome or in their home dioceses, calling on the Holy Spirit to aid the cardinal-electors in their task of choosing the next pontiff.
According to an April 14 Vatican statement, several such cardinals will preside over Masses "for the election of a Roman pontiff" April 18-22 in Rome. Since the archpriests of three of Rome's four major basilicas are cardinal-electors, the over-80 cardinals may fill in for the archpriests and lead prayers there, said Msgr. Burns.