Vatican Diary: A New Papacy Begins

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MASTER OF CEREMONIES: Italian Bishop Piero Marini assists the Pope during mass in 2003

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Vatican City, April 7, 9pm
Who are the Front Runners?
Even though the conclave to choose a new pontiff is still 10 days away, much of the media here is hard at work searching for signs of what kind of man the cardinals may be looking for. I've been sounding out my Vatican sources on how the race to replace John Paul II may shape up, and that has meant meeting in trattorias and cafes further and further away from St. Peter's Square — some Vatican sources don't like talking when other journalists or clerics might walk by. What I learned was that the discussion of a new pope has not really progressed since John Paul II died, and it will likely begin in earnest only after his burial. And my sources tell me that the cardinals are considering imposing a total media blackout even before the conclave begins to prevent speculation on the outcome of their deliberations.

Thousands wait to say their last farewells to Pope John Paul II

One of my sources did relate, though, that there's a sense among many of the cardinals that they're looking to see if an Italian consensus candidate exists. If one does not emerge in the early ballots, they'll begin to look elsewhere. On the basis of my conversations, I'd say the top three contenders remain Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the Arcbishop of Milan; Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Archbishop of Sao Paulo in Brazil; and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who has been John Paul II's chief theological enforcer. Tettamanzi would probably be the leading Italian contender; Hummes would represent a turn to the developing world where the Church continues to grow; and Ratzinger would represent a concern to appoint a pontiff capable of whipping the Church's vast bureaucracy into shape.

As for how the world will learn of their decision, the story of how the news of the Pope's death broke on the wires may be instructive. Everyone was obviously in a race to be first to break the news, which was simultaneously released to dozens of news outlets via an email from Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. As AP's veteran Vatican correspondent Victor Simpson put it, �In a case like this you just don't want to get beat.� But the bespectacled New Yorker, who has covered John Paul II's papacy from Day 1 was, in fact, pipped at the post by the Italian wire service ANSA, whose Vatican bureau chief Gianluca Vannucchi got Navarro's email on his Blackberry and ran into the press center yelling "Franco! Franco! Franco!" His colleague, Franco Pisano, was already hitting the letter T for "transmetti" (send) on his keyboard, followed by S for "si." That put the Italians a couple of seconds ahead of AP, whose Bill Kole hit "send" on a newsflash prewritten by Simpson — "Vatican says Pope has died" — after being phoned by colleague Nicole Winfield, whose Blackberry had vibrated with the news. Still, AP and ANSA were ahead of the pack. When a new pope is chosen, they'll all be waiting, fingers poised over the "send" button, for a puff of white smoke to appear over the Sistine Chapel. The name will be announced shortly after to the piazza — and maybe simultaneously via another mass email from Navarro.

Vatican City, April 6, 9pm
Beyond the elaborate ceremonies and endless stream of affection, the end of a pontificate also brings less poignant moments. One example yesterday involved a long time employee of the Vatican's media operations who has never been very popular with the press corps. Yesterday, during a particularly busy moment in the Sala Stampa (Press Room), this Vatican official booted a senior Italian correspondents from the lobby area for no apparent reason. "You and I have an outstanding debt from the beginning of this pontificate," the reporter shouted as he was being led out the door by the arm. "And those debts are coming due."

The press office is, in fact, likely to see a significant turnover once the new pope is chosen, as are the major dicasteries responsible for Church governance. With the death of a pope, all top Vatican officials automatically lose their jobs, except the Camerlengo who is responsible for organizing the interregnum activities such as the funeral and conclave, as well as the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary (who is responsible for confessions), currently an American James Cardinal Stafford, and the Vicar of Rome, Camillo Cardinal Ruini (who oversees the diocese of Rome).

For obvious reasons, though, the press office run by longtime Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls will continue to operate through the transition period. Despite continuing complaints that he is not as forthcoming as some would like, Navarro-Valls has gotten good grades for his handling of the pontiff's last months. After he had rushed to Gemelli hospital on Feb. 1, there was an initial attempt to sweeten the picture of John Paul's health: the Vatican feared a groundswell from the faithful questioning the authority of an enfeebled (and potentially incapacitated) pontiff. But the pontiff's final 72 hours were a model of transparency from the press office, as Navarro confirmed his deteriorating condition in regular briefings.

For years, news organizations had speculated over how the news of the Pope's death would get out to the world. Would it be leaked ahead of time? Would there be a false scoop that would set off flurries of speculation? Would the Vatican keep the news secret for hours or days until it could straighten out the situation inside the Curia? The Rome bureau chiefs of news wire agencies and television stations lost sleep for fear of missing the historic news flash. Instead, Navarro's simultaneous email to the major news agencies at the same time that Archbishop Leonardo Sandri announced the news to the faithful in St. Peter's Square, worked seamlessly. And so John Paul's final act — dying in public — was as grandiose and universal as his life itself.

The story today continues to be the crowds pouring slowly through St. Peter's Square to catch a glimpse of the Pope lying in state. The Vatican estimates there are 600,000 people a day filing past the body — seven people every second. And Italian media estimates are closer to 1 million. Even then, some are left disappointed: Carmella Paolillo had taken an overnight train from her small town near the southern city of Salerno to pay her respects. But by day's end, after waiting nearly 10 hours, she had to give up, with the Basilica finally in sight. "I'm so sorry. And it's not because I'm tired, but I've got to catch my train. I have nowhere to stay tonight." The 53-year-old middle school teacher had seen the Pope twice while he was alive, once from his apartment overlooking St. Peter's square and once, in the early '90s, when he visited her hometown of Nocera Inferiore. As for seeing him before he is buried, Paolillo would have to settle for television. "I just wanted to see him. I don't know why I came all this way, but it wasn't for curiosity."

The conclave to choose a new pontiff has been scheduled to begin Monday, April 18. There will be one ballot that afternoon, which traditionally is a chance for Cardinals to vote for a sentimental choice as a special honor. The real race begins Tuesday morning, with the first two ballots. More to come in this diary, of course, on what's at stake in the campaign for succession.

There are currently 3,500 accredited journalists covering the event, and we are all trying to figure out when interest in this story may begin to wane. Most of the major network anchors plan to leave after the funeral on Friday. But many will be back in time for the conclave. During the conclave, there will still be plenty to chatter about: speculating on the choice of successor, explaining the process, remarking on the secrecy. But TV — which until now has been able to show the dramatic live images of the crowds, of St. Peter's, of the Pope's body lying in state — may have days to fill with recorded images supplied by the Holy See showing the interiors of the various chambers where the cardinals will meet, eat and sleep, and from which the outside world will be tightly excluded.

April 5, 2005, 9pm
Watching the Pope Lying In State

The traditional pageantry, mystery and power of Vatican rituals has awed the faithful for centuries. But the convergence of John Paul II's massive popularity with around-the-clock news coverage has created a spectacle that will go down with the ages. Today alone some 600,000 people have filed slowly, step by step, waiting as long as 14 hours, for just a brief glance at the body of the pontiff lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica. Meanwhile, new details are emerging about the elaborate plans for the Pope's funeral and burial on Friday, and even a word or two about the Conclave that will choose a successor. For those of us assigned to cover this momentous and mind-boggling event, what better time to start keeping a reporter's log!

I spent an hour yesterday lining up with scores of journalists, clerics and diplomats to view the pontiff's body lying in state at the Clementine Chapel, before it was moved across to St. Peter's Basilica — John Paul II will have his final resting place in the crypt below. As the line moved very slowly up the staircase to the third floor, and then as we moved through the Chapel, the atmosphere was very somber. The rosary was being recited as we moved slowly past the pontiff's body, and I was struck by the presence of Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's private secretary and the closest thing he had to family, who stood nearby, arms crossed, maintaining an intense vigil. I also saw the prefect of the papal household, Archbishop James Harvey originally of Milwaukee, sitting in a pew near the body.

I couldn't help thinking that the look on the pontiff's face, lying in state, suggested that his final hours might not have been quite as serene as we've been told. He looked as if the suffering was weighing on him until his very last moment.

Today, Tuesday, we were summoned to a press conference at 12:30 p.m. with Archbishop Piero Marini, the papal master of ceremonies, and Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Pope John Paul II's longtime spokesman. Getting there, through the throngs of people on the streets of Vatican City was a major challenge. Watching on TV, you will have seen the hundreds of thousands jamming onto the Via Della Conciliazione, the wide boulevard leading up to St. Peter's Basilica. But what you don't see on TV is that the parallel side streets are also packed, wall to wall. The crowd here is of a scale unlike anything I've ever seen. Rubbing shoulders with the tens of thousands of the faithful are cardinals, bishops and their staff — I ran into Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles en route to the press conference. He was heading to lunch with a couple of aides, and like me trying not to get knocked around by the passing pilgrims. I only had time enough to give my business card to his spokesman. (Virtually all of the U.S. cardinals have someone who handles press. And frankly we in the Roman press, where Cardinals tend to be less accessible, are happy to be handled!)

The crowds hardly thin out, even into the night. The Basilica is closed for cleaning from 3 am to 5 am, but most of the people outside simply wait patiently for it to reopen. And they appear to be deeply moved by the experience of being part of this history unfolding before them. They chant the rosary, and sometimes just the name "Giovanni Paolo" in a rhythmic chorus, as they wait for hours to get a few seconds glance at the pontiff as they pass by his body.

At the press conference, we learned more about the funeral arrangements and the burial. There had been some speculation before yesterday's announcement that he is to be interred in the crypt, that his body would be brought back to Poland. But that proved unfounded. The rumor was another reminder that this man seemed to have two sides. He was a devoted patriot of his native Poland, but at the same time a supremely Roman pontiff, who saw himself as the rightful successor of Peter. He was a firm believer in tradition, but infinitely curious about other cultures. Ultimately, John Paul II opted for continuity in his choice of burial, and his body will be placed in the same part of the crypt where the body of Pope John XXIII had lain before it was moved into the basilica following his beatification. Given his popularity, it's quite likely that John Paul II will eventually also be beatified, and moved into the basilica.

The funeral will take place Friday at 10 am, local time. On Thursday night, they'll clear St. Peter's Square to prepare it for the funeral, and also ready the pontiff's body for burial. Archbishop Dziwisz will place a white silk veil over the pope's face, and his body will be placed in a simple cedar coffin, which will be put into a zinc coffin and then into an oak coffin, which will then be covered in marble and placed in the flat tomb inside the crypt. Inside the cedar coffin will be a small bag containing silver and bronze medallions depicting various important events in his papacy. Inside the coffin there will also be a lead tube bearing a written account of John Paul's life and papacy. The funeral service will be lead by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith who is given that responsibility as the dean of the college of cardinals.

Naturally, there was intense curiosity among the journalists over the details of the conclave at which some 117 cardinals — at least those of them healthy enough to make the trip to Rome — will choose a successor to Pope John Paul II. That event will begin some fifteen to twenty days after the pontiff's death, meaning one week from next Sunday at the earliest. But it is held in the deepest of secrecy, with the cardinals sequestered far more tightly than any jury in a celebrity trial in the U.S. A special hotel has been built inside the Vatican to house them during the conclave, and they'll have no access to the outside world — nor will the outside world have any access to them. They'll be allowed to take walks, but only in designated confined spaces within the Vatican. If, during the conclave itself, you hear of any "leaked" reports from inside, you can safely ignore them. We'll be lucky if we can find out what they're eating. (There's an old joke in Rome that the duration of the conclave depends on the quality of the food is: If they're being well-fed, it can last longer; if the cardinals are pining for their favorite trattoria, they may resolve their business earlier.) Yesterday, after viewing John Paul's body in the Clementine Chapel, I strolled out the long way from the Vatican walls to have another, closer look at the Santa Marta hotel where the Cardinals will be lodging. The sliding glass doors opened for me, but I only had time enough to glance at the entrance and lobby area before a stern-faced women, who had been chatting with two nuns, curtly told me I had to leave at once.

At the press conference, Marini and Navarro-Valls simply chuckled at the efforts of all the veteran Vaticanisti journalists trying to pry details about the conclave out of them. What they did confirm was that they will follow the tradition of releasing a puff of white smoke above the Sistine Chapel once they've made their choice. But the last time this happened, when JohnPaul II was chosen, there was confusion because the smoke was hazy and it was difficult to tell whether it was white or black. Archbishop Marini confirmed that the smoke will be used again, but added, "We'll try to make sure it looks better than last time." And to avoid any confusion, bells will be rung at the same time to signal the world that a new pope has been chosen.

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