Cardinals to break with some traditions at conclave today

Security will be tighter, accommodations better as they select new pope

April 18, 2005|By Steve Kloehn | Steve Kloehn,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

VATICAN CITY -- History towers over the 115 Roman Catholic cardinals who will gather today to begin selecting a new pope, but some of the church's ancient traditions are shifting beneath their feet.

The cardinals' isolation from the outside world, first codified in 1274, will be bolstered this year by jamming devices reportedly hidden under a false floor in the Sistine Chapel, there to defeat any sophisticated microphones or eavesdropping satellites.

The cardinals will be confined beginning this afternoon, as those in such conclaves have been off and on for more than 1,000 years, but this time with comforts previously unimagined, including private bathrooms and a chance to stroll in the Vatican gardens.

As they select the next pope, the cardinals face a more fundamental test about how to read history -- and how that interpretation should guide the church's future.

"The pope started the last century as a prisoner in the Vatican, and now the pope is the most famous person in the world," said the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at the Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome. "They have to find somebody who can fill that stage."

In 1978, by choosing a pope from outside Italy, the cardinals broke with 455 years of tradition. By choosing a man who put his focus on evangelizing distant corners of the Earth and reaching beyond Roman Catholics, they created a new kind of papacy.

Now, in the largest conclave of modern times, cardinals from 52 countries will help determine whether John Paul II established the new model for church leadership, whether the next pope should follow a more traditional path, or whether to seek something altogether different.

As the cardinals gathered in meetings every day last week, dealing with everything from drawing lots for rooms during the conclave to discussing the church's finances, they had an extended opportunity to see one another out from under the shadow of a pope.

By the middle of last week, two Italian papers were counting heads, claiming that unnamed sources put either 40 or 50 of the necessary 77 votes behind Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the cardinals and John Paul II's chief doctrinal enforcer.

Many church insiders say Ratzinger is well liked by the cardinals. Ratzinger's public reputation for being stern and stiff, they say, has more to do with the job he held than with the nature of the man who turned 78 on Saturday, a theologian formed in the halls of the Second Vatican Council.

But even as common wisdom makes Ratzinger a candidate, many scoff at the notion that even the cardinals could estimate the depth of support behind any particular man.

Whether or not the last papacy made expectations like that obsolete, John Paul II did change the rules for the conclave in a more literal way.

Most immediately welcome to his successors, he ended the days of cots and curtained-off cubicles in the cold marble halls of the Apostolic Palace, where long lines of elderly men shared very few bathrooms in past conclaves.

In 1996 the Vatican renovated an old hospice as a $20 million lodging specifically designed for conclaves.

Reporters have not been allowed in since John Paul II's death, as security officials immediately went to work sweeping and securing the facility. But a video shows that the 106 suites and 23 singles are simple, standard hotel rooms, done in tones of white and gold, each with its own bathroom.

The cardinals also will have a dining room, with doctors and priests for confession on call. They will be bused the short distance from St. Martha House, the new hotel, to the Sistine Chapel.

And, while drafting a new set of rules designed to prevent those service employees remaining within Vatican City from speaking to the cardinals, Pope John Paul II even allowed the cardinals to take an outside stroll, a respite he enjoyed throughout most of his papacy.

That was all part of a 1996 set of conclave laws, the latest update of the comprehensive church law governing the voting that Pope Nicholas II first instituted in 1059.

The 1996 revision eliminated two ancient forms of choosing a pope -- election by acclamation, a frequent outcome in the church's early days, in which all those taking part unanimously rallied around a single candidate by voice vote; and another ancient process by which a deadlocked conclave could delegate the choice to a small group of cardinals.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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