Vatican City–These are strange and quiet days in Rome. The legions of young people who came by the millions to bid their beloved leader goodbye have departed with him. It was a splendid spectacle while it lasted; one we privileged witnesses will not likely see again.
For days they lined the Via Conciliazione: Mourners spilling into the little streets near the Vatican waited for hours to see Pope John Paul II just one last time. The extraordinary thing was their solemn attitude. In the three-mile line that snaked up and down entire streets, there was no extraneous chatter, no yelling or fighting. The mayor of Rome claims that the city was free of crime while the pope’s body lay in state. This is not hard to believe, particularly if one were near the Vatican. That long loving line of humanity pouring into St. Peter’s Basilica for four days was more interested in prayer than conflict. I saw them myself singing hymns, reciting rosaries, and occasionally departing the line for a quick confession in one of the doorways along the Via Conciliazione. The Legionaries of Christ had priests stationed ever so many feet to offer the sacrament to any and all takers. Business was reportedly quite brisk throughout the pope’s wake.
The trembling, unspoken excitement created by the four million people who came to pay their respects to John Paul reached its crescendo at his funeral. The continuing nine days of mourning has only reinforced the reality that the pope is gone. For many of my generation (in their 30s), and for the millions of young people crowding the streets of Rome last week, John Paul is the only pope we have ever known. Were I in New Orleans or New York or L.A. I might be able to distract myself from thinking about his absence, but here it is tangible. The streets are oddly lifeless. Activity is somehow muted. Any day now the media hordes will descend and everything will crackle once more, but for the moment things are still and out of sync. As the “Grazie Santo Padre” posters curl at the bus stops, and the vendors sell off the last of the John Paul II overstock, the feeling that we won’t see his like again has begun to sink in.
Similar thoughts must assail the College of Cardinals as they prepare to elect the next supreme pontiff. Watching them as they putter in and out of their general congregation meetings each day, the cardinals seem a confused lot. The college is so far flung, so international that the simple reality is this: These men do not know each another. One cardinal from a developing country told me privately that his familiarity with his peers begins and ends with a synod meeting he attended several years ago. He believes himself incapable of casting an informed vote next week. But ready or not, time is running out and Monday’s conclave is approaching.
Like bargain hunters at a midnight-madness sale, many of the cardinals race about town trying to inspect the other 114 papal candidates before the clock stops. Each day they gather informally in swank Roman restaurants or in houses of religious studies to eye up the papabiles. One cardinal told me it is not uncommon for him to have lunch with eight or ten electors, only to run off to dinner with eight or ten more. Over steaming carbonara and the house chianti, they talk of Church doctrine and practice. They share experiences in their local churches and gossip about the matters discussed during their general congregation meetings that morning. Then, when the conversation lags, they stare hard at one another trying to see a pope. Soon it is off to the next dinner, the next meeting, the next Mass, hopeful that they will soon make the acquaintance of the man capable of holding the keys of Peter and guiding the Universal Church in the years to come.
For most of the men entering the Sistine Chapel on Monday, the process is bewildering. Only two of the cardinal electors in this conclave have ever selected a pope in the past. The others feel their way through, following their more experienced brethren, trying to surmount the cultural and linguistic challenges of this unique gathering. In between all the activity they pray. Some pray in groups, some pray alone. But with this much at stake and with so many possibilities before them, prayer is required.
If the rumor mill is to be believed, and in Rome these days the mill churns mightily, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the leading papal contender. One of John Paul’s closest confidantes, Ratzinger has been the Vatican’s doctrinal officer for more than 20 years. The renowned theologian is described by intimates as a holy man, a humble soul, who has more than a passing familiarity with Church governance. But as comforting as his candidacy is to orthodox Catholics, it is deeply unsettling to Church progressives–making it very likely that the media chatter about Pope Ratzinger is a ruse designed to galvanize progressives to come up with an alternative candidate of their own before Monday. Personally, I think the speculation is ludicrous. Not because the game isn’t fun, and God knows everyone in Rome has played it innumerable times since the pope’s passing, but because it reduces the conclave to a political race. And it is much more than that.
The Holy Spirit is the wild card in these proceedings. As Father Richard John Neuhaus, one of Catholicism’s great minds and my co-host for EWTN’s coverage of the conclave, has pointed out time and time again, the Holy Spirit will operate not in spite of, but through the egos, the press coverage, and politics of this conclave. But you needn’t believe me. You need only ask the next pope, whom I think will surprise us all.
–Raymond Arroyo is news director and host of The World Over on EWTN, the world’s
largest religious network. He is the author of an upcoming biography of Mother Angelica.