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Snapshots from the Conclave’s First Act
by Paul Wilkes
Monday, April 18, 2005

In the Catholic tradition, for mortal human beings, the primary source of continuing grace and sustenance is the sacrifice of the Mass. And this morning, the Mass of the Holy Spirit was said in Rome, asking God to guide the cardinals and officially opening the conclave that will select the new pope.

Following are some snapshots from a vantage point close to the altar:

· The organ prelude echoes through the vastness of St. Peter’s Basilica, then promptly at 10 a.m. two tall candles emerge from the back of the church. Soon a strange sight, even from my vantage point, above eye level of the congregation. All that can be seen behind the candles are bobbing, jagged points of dull white light. Larger. Larger. These are the tips of miters worn by the 115 cardinals, processing slowly up the main aisle. The points grow into the full miters, then the faces below are revealed: old men and still older men for the most part, all hues of skin color, but mostly white. Finally one miter, with just a splash of red atop its crown. It marks the celebrant, Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals.

· The cardinals slowly circle behind the grand, elevated main altar, mount a series of marble steps, and show their reverence by bowing to kiss the altar. In a crypt beneath the altar lie the newly interred mortal remains of Pope John Paul II. What is radiating from that tomb? Is the great man still here in some tangible way? At the end of one of the rows of chairs the cardinals occupy, the papal miter and garb are displayed, a silent reminder that the pope is dead and someone must now carry on as the 265th successor of St. Peter. Which of these men covets this honor and this burden; what have they done to gain it? Each can only surmise, and perhaps secretly wish, who ultimately will wear that special miter in not too many days' time.

· The service is long, elegant, and intoned in Latin, the eternal language of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger’s sermon is delivered in Italian, and from his lack of emotion it would appear to be a safe, neutral exegesis of the day’s readings from the Old and New Testament. But when the English translation is handed out, it proves to be nothing of the sort. Cardinal Ratzinger, going into the conclave as the conservatives’ favorite and--according to the Italian press--commanding a bloc of perhaps 50 of the necessary 78 votes to be elected, rails against “liberalism, “collectivism,” and “relativism.”

“The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves,” he warns. But the sturdy bark of Catholicism shall not be buffeted or set off course by these passing storms. “Having a clear faith…is often labeled as fundamentalism,” he proclaims--and that is clearly the camp in which the cardinal wants to be situated. It is a strong, biblically referenced homily. It is also his final political speech to the gathered cardinals before the conclave begins. It will be looked upon as the platform that led to his successful election as pope or as a brazen attempt to sway the conclave, the final nail in his coffin.

· As the cardinals file out to still another breathtakingly beautiful organ piece, some now cast a tentative eye to right or left, a little movement they did not indulge upon entering, because their eyes were so fixed on the altar before them. A ripple of applause starts in the midsection of the full church--a strange sound at first on such a solemn occasion--but quickly spreads in both directions, sweeping over the people of God, the laity, and forward to the front of the church where the clergy, older cardinals and bishops are seated. They, too, must now join in.

· As the applause will not abate, some of the cardinals return the rousing sendoff with shy smiles, a nod here and there. Cardinal Ratzinger is last in the long line. He is stone-faced, not a flicker of emotion.

· The cardinals are gone, but as I come down from my place, I look behind me. The cardinals have taken off their vestments and are now proceeding toward their assembly area to begin the actual conclave. Some stop to kneel and pray at the glass-enclosed sarcophagus of the beloved John XXIII, initiator of the Second Vatican Council and a new era of openness in the Church. Others pass the sarcophagus by and proceed directly to the task at hand.


Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press. 



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