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Today’s news from Rome is that the Cardinals who are meeting for the General Congregations will no longer give interviews about the meetings and about the forthcoming conclave. As I understand it, this is in keeping with the media blackout after Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005, though with the difference is that this time the Holy See Press Office will continue to give a daily Press Briefing, broadcast live on www.news.va.

It’s easy to assume that a heavy-handed ‘Vatican’ has closed-down the dialogue, but this would miss an important point. Without a Pope, the Cardinals themselves are the principal authority in the Church and so it is only the Cardinals who can (self-)impose this ban, which is what they’ve done. It’s also worth noting that the reason for enforcing this ban is that the confidential nature of the General Congregations was apparently undermined this morning by an article in La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper.

Of course, the General Congregations could be opened up to the world, but the effect would likely be to restrict the topics and level of conversation, and increase the length of the conclave itself. If that happened, it would also seriously limit the contribution of those members of the College of Cardinals who are not eligible to vote (i.e. over 80), but who can participate fully in the General Congregations. Nobody wants to see that just for the sake of a few headlines.

We also have to bear in mind that we are dealing, here, with a sacred event. The conclave particularly, but also the coming together of the world’s leading bishops in the General Congregations, is not simply a meeting or a synod, but a time in which the best collegial action can take place. That necessitates some real privacy, in order to deal effectively with the challenges, and to ensure the integrity of the College of Cardinals.

Today, too, the Cardinals reminded us of the essentially spiritual aspect of these events. In silence before the Blessed Sacrament, in union with Our Lady in the Rosary, and in praying together the Liturgy of the Hours, they reminded us that – to steal a line from Louise Mensch – we’re dealing with white smoke, not White House. This isn’t politics – secular or ecclesiastical – it’s a moment of discerning the will of God, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Pope Benedict presided at that moving last Ash Wednesday Mass, he brought the standing ovation to a close with the words, ‘Ritorniamo a pregare’ (Let us return to prayer). Today we’ve been reminded that we should do that over and over again and, as a little challenge to ourselves we might ask: have I prayed about all this as much as I’ve talked about it? Ritorniamo a pregare.