In a hurry to take things slowly: How Italian culture could shape the conclave

March 19, 2013 Kier Simmons

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Originally published by NBC News, featuring an interview with American Studies professor, Kathy Cummings

ROME — In this country, where they love to talk, there are many views on how long the cardinals will take to choose the next pope. 

The leaders of the Catholic Church don't have to act fast. When your history stretches back 2,000 years and beyond, time is relative. In 1268, the church leadership was so divided it took three years to choose a new pope. Three weeks, even three months, would not be long by comparison.

Three days is a good bet. Even Pope John Paul II, considered an outsider, was selected on the third day. But if the conclave is bitterly divided, cardinals could keep going… and going.

In Roman times the Senate of the Republic would begin at dawn. Senators were adept at delaying a vote, drawing out proceedings.

Fast forward from Roman times and Italy had inherited a culture with a slow pace and a love of long lunches and weekends away from work.

Perhaps Italy’s need for speed is partly a reaction to the slow lane that Italy so often appears to occupy. Traffic lights seem to take forever to change; it is little wonder many Italian drivers have one hand permanently on their vehicle's horn.Yet this is also the country that invented the espresso, where coffee is often drunk standing up. Italians created one of the world's greatest fast foods: pizza. And then there's Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati — Italian cars go at one speed: fast. 

The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

Italy’s culture has shaped not only the conclave process but the entire machinery of the Vatican — a fact that some say explains many of the church’s current predicaments.

“The way in which the dysfunction of 21st century Italy has re-established itself within the curia in recent years is one of the most important issues for the church,” NBC News Vatican expert George Weigel said.

Twenty-eight of the 115 cardinals taking part in the conclave are from Italy — more than two-and-a-half times the number from the next-largest represented nation, the United States.

For almost 200 years, no papal selection has lasted longer than five days, and it is possible that all the talking prior to the conclave has helped narrow down the field. The voting itself is a slow process — the ballots are counted three times — but the results are announced as they come in, so it will quickly be clear to the cardinals if there is an emerging consensus.

Then the new pope will walk out on to the balcony St. Peter's Basilica. And the conversation will move on to whether the pace of change in the Roman Catholic Church will speed up or slow down.