Tuesday, April 19, 2005: My flight arrives in Rome early on the second morning of the conclave. I proceed immediately to the mother house of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, my hosts for the week. Though anxious to join the crowd at St. Peter’s Square, I accept the invitation to stay for the midday meal. I am welcomed by Fr. Anthony McSweeney, an Australian who has lived in Rome for thirty years. A warm, open man who clearly delights in his priesthood and in the people he serves, he laughs easily about some of the church’s ways. “I’m convinced any priest with intelligence can become a bishop,” he tells me. “I’ve seen it happen so many times over the years.” He brings up the image of the cordata, a group of mountaineers roped together, to explain how men of ambition latch on to cardinals or curial officials, cultivating relationships with attention, gifts, and invitations, and how these are later rewarded with key appointments.

We speak further of the “culture” of Roman ecclesiastical politics, and of how things tend to get done behind the scenes, over time, by way of connections, and by employing a kind of diplomatic theological language that few, even in the church, are trained to use. The whole thing is quite different from the highly politicized American culture McSweeney encountered when studying theology at Berkeley years ago. There the open contestation of interest groups—feminists, gays, conservatives, liberals, each with its own theology—was a new experience for him. “The church in Australia is getting that way,” he said, “but it isn’t so far along yet.”

I arrive at St. Peter’s Square in the early afternoon. The smoke seen rising from the Sistine Chapel in the morning was black. I mill around the square, noting the broadcast transmitters of EWTN atop the North American College on the Janiculum Hill, and then make my way to the grave of John Paul II. I am glad to have a moment to stand in the presence of this great pope, to honor his service to the church and the world. There are posters everywhere in Rome with his image and the message, Grazie, Padre Santo.

Through the afternoon, the square fills gradually and the camera crews positioned near the obelisk in the center wait and watch. I run into a Dutch priest I know who works with the media, and then a college classmate, now an editor at the Chicago Tribune. He has just pointed out Marco Politi, the Italian co-author (with Carl Bernstein) of a biography of Pope John Paul II, when smoke starts coming out the pipe atop the Sistine Chapel. It is a thrilling moment, even more thrilling than when I met John Paul II years ago. The Roman Catholic Church has a genius for drama, and this is one of its supreme gestures. The first wisps draw shouts from the crowd, but what is the color? It seems to be white, but will it darken, as it had in the morning? For a moment it appears to, but no, the smoke keeps coming and it looks white. Pressed against the barricades, we await the confirmation of the bells. Behind me, the square, which was half-full only minutes ago, is now nearly packed. I stare at the large motionless bell. After twenty minutes, it starts to move. Slowly, back and forth—but still silent—five, six, seven times, then it finally swings far enough for the clapper to sound. When it does, people yell and applaud, and we all turn to the balcony, where every few minutes the curtain seems to open a crack.

When Cardinal Medina Estevez of Chile finally appears with his news of great joy, “Habemus Papam,” the noise is stupendous. Though the majority present throughout the day had been tourists, now I am surrounded by Italians. When the name Joseph is spoken, the woman on my left cries and the young man next to me thanks God. My first thought is, “Surely not... There must be more than one Joseph among the electors.” But then there is no mistaking it: Cardinal Ratzinger has been elected. I had assumed he was too controversial to be chosen, that he would only get about fifty votes, and that some alternative would be found. (Later, Marco Politi writes in La Repubblica that the early battle had been between Ratzinger and the progressives’ favorite, Cardinal Carlo Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, with each getting about forty votes before Martini’s candidacy stalled.) I hadn’t expected the cardinals to choose a leader who would be a lightning rod for opposition. But now I join those around me in cheering the new pope and resolve to keep an open mind. When he does appear, Benedict XVI reassures us that he is, after all, just a “simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” so why worry?  

Wednesday, April 20: I return to St. Peter’s and watch on the outdoor screen as Benedict XVI addresses the cardinal electors. He reflects on Peter’s professing Jesus as “the Christ” and on Jesus’ calling Peter “the rock” on which his church will be built. The questions, the new pope notes, are our own: Who is Christ for us? And who is this Peter? During John Paul II’s funeral, I had been struck by Cardinal Ratzinger’s gentle manner and presentation. That quality makes him seem approachable, but it also suggests he has been protected and is somewhat removed from the world. There is none of the flinty vigor and leveling gaze of John Paul. Instead, the calm of the velvet clerical otherworld.

Half the camera crews have gone by now, but there are still lots of tourists. A girl jogs across the square in shorts and a t-shirt, and I head for the Academia Alfonsina to arrange an interview with Brian Johnstone, a moral theologian. After stopping to pray at St. Mary Major, Cardinal Bernard Law’s new basilica, I take in an exhibit of John F. Kennedy at the Piazza di Pietra. It features hundreds of photos of the late president. The man looked good, even when spooning sugar. Ironically, the picture in which he looks least comfortable shows him walking, head down, alongside two nuns in full habit.  

Thursday, April 21: An Argentinean priest where I am staying tells me that “simplicity” is what the church needs now to reach its people. A Belgian priest says he was surprised the cardinals chose a pope with so little pastoral experience. I ask him how the Italians feel about the new pope. “They don’t know him,” he says. “He has always been in the curia.” In the evening I have dinner with a Dutch journalist. He detected disappointment on the face of Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels, who returned home soon after the conclave. Cardinal Adrianus Simonis of Utrecht, my companion gathers, was not part of the early Ratzinger contingent, but eventually joined in voting for him.

Friday, April 22: Professor Johnstone welcomes me to the Alfonsina, where Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras (one of the early preconclave favorites) had studied. Johnstone, a Redemptorist priest, specializes in biomedical ethics. Was he surprised at Cardinal Ratzinger’s election? Yes, because favorites going into a conclave don’t often emerge as pope. Johnstone had thought one of the Latin Americans might be chosen. Does he read anything into Benedict’s first actions as pope? Yes, in particular Benedict’s remarks to the cardinals the day following his election. First, the new pope explicitly referred to the principle of episcopal collegiality (shared leadership of the church in communion with the pope), citing Lumen gentium. Second, Benedict voiced a strong commitment to visible Christian unity, that is, something beyond mere dialogue. The pope’s choice of words called to mind Gaudium et spes, Johnstone said, which speaks of the dignity of human conscience. Third, Johnstone was taken with Benedict’s emphasis on interreligious dialogue, and even dialogue with those of other, not necessarily religious, views. Johnstone notes that soon thereafter the chief rabbi of Rome sent Benedict a telegram, welcoming the proposed dialogue. What struck Johnstone was that the new pope had deliberately emphasized these points at the beginning of his papacy. They may serve as hopeful signs for progressives who are wary of Benedict.

I say that the commitment to dialogue with those outside the church (a program Benedict appears to be taking over from his predecessor) seems at odds with internal church policies emphasizing uniformity. When Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, participation in meaningful dialogue about the future direction of the church was, in practice, limited to a select few, and not even all bishops were listened to. Before the conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger had warned the cardinals of the “dictatorship of relativism.” Johnstone smiles and acknowledges the tension. Yes, he says, the emphasis within the church has been on shoring up Catholic identity, but with others, it has been on communication. When I leave the Alfonsina, the sun has not yet fully risen, but the darkly shaded Roman streets are crisscrossed with avenues of light.

Saturday, April 23: I mull over a second conversation with McSweeney the night before. “Actually, there are a lot of things you can say in the church, if you just say them the right way,” he had said. We had been talking about dialogue and participation. “It’s a question of style and avoiding outright confrontation. In this way it is possible to make criticisms, and with equal force.” But what is so wrong with calling a spade a spade—without forgoing charity, of course—and why is so much communication in the church one-directional? McSweeney agreed that this can be a problem. “The first time I took a church directive as a personal affront was when we were told we weren’t even supposed to think about women’s ordination,” he said. “I mean, we’re not talking about a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine here, like the Incarnation or redemption.” Another problem with such pronouncements, he said, is that anyone with historical awareness knows that church teaching has evolved. “In Mediator Dei, Pius XII called it an unacceptable archaeologism to want to make the altar look like a table, but today we understand that to be its primary symbolism.”

Nonetheless, McSweeney understands Benedict’s concern about relativism in our “ultrapluralistic world” (McSweeney’s term). Today, many young people have grown up without certainty, and it is understandable why they might be drawn to unwavering figures like John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It’s no accident that today’s seminarians are so conservative. Yes, I thought, we all want solid ground on which to stand, but too often the Vatican’s positions are unpersuasive. There is indeed objective truth that all of us are struggling to approach and adhere to, but Rome seems to be saying it can tell us not only what that truth is but how it applies in our specific circumstances. Yet I suspect most bishops don’t have a clue what it is like to live as a Catholic layman.

My final appointment in Rome is at the North American College, where those EWTN transmitters were stationed. As 60 Minutes recently pointed out, the college is the most prestigious training ground for future U.S. priests. Prior to the conclave, most U.S. cardinals stayed there, and its seminarians are likely to become tomorrow’s church leaders. I wanted to find out how the North American College is preparing students for the real world. I meet with Fr. Dennis Gill, the seminary’s director of liturgy. When I tell him my concerns and suggest that the faithful need more access to forums and the decision-making process, he does not seem to agree. “Personally,” he says, “I see myself as having access to the bishop of Rome by listening.” Gill says he is looking forward to the pope’s installation Mass and how Benedict XVI will reflect on the mystery of the gospel. “Everyone has access to the mystery of salvation,” he concludes. “The question is how the structure is going to be adequately presented so that we can see the reality. This requires a mature discernment.”

As I fly home later that day, I reflect on William Carlos Williams’s line that Rome is a place “to which all the people of the world would come for an answer.” Perhaps, I think, but are they likely to find that the answers make sense to them? Only, I muse, if Rome really listens to their questions and takes them to heart.


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Published in the 2005-05-06 issue: View Contents

Timothy P. Schilling writes from Utrecht, the Netherlands. This reflection opens his memoir, Lonesome Road, which will be published by Wipf and Stock.

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