Sunday 24 February 2013

Meanwhile, back at the Vatican

Today, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his final public address from his window overlooking the beautiful St. Peter's Square. I'm watching on television as the piazza begins to fill with crowds that want to be there for an historic moment.

But frankly, the pope and the upcoming conclave is second in my thoughts. My elderly mom has been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer near her liver, so I'm making plans to go back to Canada to be with her. Also, trying desperately to get back to some healthy state so I'm fit to travel.

Still, it has been part of my job to write about Pope Benedict's doings and what will happen with the conclave.

Benedict shocked the world when he announced on February 11 that he would resign the papacy on February 28.

Suggestions are flying that Benedict may speed up the timing of the conclave, since this is quite an unusual situation where the pope - for the first time in 600 years - was able to give notice that he is retiring from office. Before now, popes died on the job, so cardinals needed 15-20 days to arrive in Rome to begin conclave.

So the Vatican is rushing to make everything ready for the Sistine Chapel when it hosts one of the most important events in the Catholic Church: the election of a new pope.

A team of 40 Vatican workers, officially called the "Floreria" is carefully following the pattern set in April 2005 when cardinals last gathered beneath Michelangelo's masterpiece The Last Judgement on the altar wall of the chapel, and voted to choose Pope Benedict XVI.

Without knowing the precise date of the conclave, the team is racing against the clock to have every detail perfectly prepared for the 116 cardinals who will be shut up inside the fortress-like chapel until a new pope is found.

"Until the date of the conclave, we live from day to day," explains Paul Sagretti, deputy director of the Floreria, whose office is charged with organizing most major events inside the Vatican.

No detail is left to chance as the Floreria workers carefully follow photos taken from previous conclaves, so that everything is arranged inside the Sistine Chapel in precisely the same manner as in previous conclaves. 

That will include 116 chairs made of cherry wood for the voting cardinals, with seating assigned by place cards bearing the papal coat of arms, and 12 wooden tables covered with beige cloth and burgundy satin.

Six tables are placed on the right side of the chapel and six on the left, arranged in two rows of different levels. A 13th table is placed at front of the chapel, before the altar, where an urn is placed to contain used ballots as well as a Bible.

A wooden platform has been built about 60 centimetres above the Sistine Chapel floor, covered with a beige fabric, so cardinals won't walk on the tiled floor of the chapel but instead are elevated to the level of the second step of the altar.

A velvet bag contains the ballots which each cardinal will draw come voting time.

Finally, two stoves have been connected inside the Sistine Chapel, so after a vote, ballots can be burned with a coloured chemical. The relatively rare white smoke indicates that the conclave of cardinals have reached a decision on who will head the Catholic Church.

Black smoke sends the signal that another vote must be taken.

According to Sagretti, recent conclaves have been much easier for the Floreria to organize than those in the past.

Until the 1970s, the Floreria also had to arrange all of the accommodations for the cardinals arriving from around the world.

Fortunately, with the construction of the residence of Santa Marta to house the cardinals, that task has been lessened.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Of viruses and the Vatican

I have been an absentee blogger lately - I've been so sick with a ghastly stomach virus that triggered some chronic stomach problems that have left me with barely the energy to drag myself through my shifts at the news service.

Still, it is impossible not to follow the developments at the Vatican - what an historic event! I'm not sure I would have believed the first reports if not for the fact that every TV station in Rome went live with story and updates through the day.

As the world now knows, Pope Benedict XVI, 85, has announced that because of his failing health he would step aside on February 28 so that a conclave of cardinals could meet in mid-March to choose his successor. It's believed that he is the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so voluntarily since Pope Celestine V in 1294.

Although his health had been a concern for some time, the abruptness of the announcement by Benedict, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stunned the world.

Ever since his election on April 19, 2005, Benedict steered a steady, strongly conservative course for the Catholic Church despite protests from reformers.

Yet he was also willing to take advantage of new technologies, becoming the first pope to have his own Twitter account, which was followed by almost three million soon after it was launched late last year.

The outgoing pontiff belied his mild demeanour by strongly reaffirming resistance to non-believers and a secular society.

He drew enormous criticism over a 2001 directive when, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the former Inquisition - Cardinal Ratzinger said that sex-abuse investigations should be kept in-house.

The Catholic Church is still reeling from the fallout of the clerical abuse scandals that came to light under Benedict's papacy after years of being hidden by some Church officials. Although the Pope eventually apologized for the abuse and met with victims, the Church remained branded for having shielded priests accused of molesting youngsters and hiding bad behaviour which in turn, prevented criminal prosecutions.

Another high-profile controversy involved the Vatican Bank which continues to struggle to overcome an iffy reputation and become included on the UN's list of countries with flawless anti-money-laundering credentials.

Most recently, Benedict's papacy was rocked by the so-called Vatileaks affair, when his butler leaked confidential documents to a muckraking journalist alleging corruption in the Vatican.

The pope settled the affair when he pardoned the former butler, Paolo Gabriele, who had been sentenced to 18 months in jail in December. (Gabriele now works as a clerk in a hospital in Rome.)

However, supporters consistently praised Benedict for the breadth and innovation of his theological writings and, even outside the Church, his first encyclical, God Is Love, drew widespread praise.

His best-selling trilogy on the life of Jesus also gained acclaim, while traditionalists welcomed his moves to reinstate the Latin Mass in a more user-friendly form.