Preparations are now underway for the Conclave: yesterday the Sistine Chapel was closed to make it ready for the election. Commentators are suggesting that, going on how long it took to prepare the Chapel for the last election - seven days, the earliest date for the Conclave will be the 12th March. We will see - the date may well be announced later today.
The Cardinals have announced that there will be adoration and Vespers in St Peter's Basilica this afternoon at 5pm (Roman time) which will be 4pm GMT and they have asked all Catholics around the world to join them in prayer at that time for the Conclave and the man who will be Pope. So if you are reading this before that time perhaps you might take note of it and spend some time in prayer then. Here is the booklet with the chants and prayers for the ceremony, it might be an idea to use it during your time of prayer.
In relation to the Conclave the CNS has some good articles which provide reliable information on what will happen before and during the Conclave. In one article we get a description of the book which details the liturgies of the election, it also acts as a kind of spiritual guide for the Cardinals; it was compiled in 1998 and approved by Blessed John Paul II. There is also another excellent article in which two Cardinals who took part in the 2005 Conclave speak about the experience: Cardinals Maradiaga and Napier. They speak of "fear and trembling" as they feel the weight of the huge responsibility which has been put on their shoulders. The Conclave, according to the Cardinals, is in fact a liturgy, a process which takes place within intense prayer - very far from the political model of election.
One thing which resonated with me was their description of that moment when they cast their vote. Cardinal Napier says it is "the most solemn, the most difficult, frightening" moment. "[Y]ou go with your ballot paper in your hand and hold it up in front of the altar and say, 'I call on the Lord Jesus, who will be my judge, to witness that I am voting for the one I believe to be worthy'." It is, the Cardinal continues, "a moment of intense emotion [and] faith". And they realise how serious it actually is: "If I'm voting for unworthy reasons I'm actually asking Jesus to judge me, to condemn me", the Cardinal said.
I think all of this is intensified by being in the Sistine Chapel, because at every moment, and especially as they vote - when they face the altar, Michelangelo's Last Judgement is bearing down on them and that will certainly keep them focused. And indeed as they deliberate and pray, outside the Chapel the whole world is waiting. Faithful Catholics trust them to give the Church a worthy, holy and strong Pope to lead the Church and to fulfil the office of Father. Those who know little about Catholicism need to hear the Gospel from an effective witness. The governments of the world await a new head who will represent the Church with dignity, courage, clarity and, in this time of persecution, fearlessness. And so on....
We must pray intensely for the Cardinals.
Here are some items which may be of interest - a look at the ballot boxes that will be used during the Conclave, and a quick look at the work being carried out in the Sistine Chapel (and the famous chimney and stoves!):