A short while after the See of Peter became vacant at the end of last month, the Sistine Chapel (or, Sistina) closed its doors to the world outside. But, before the cardinals enter that room for the conclave, a small number of reporters received the chance to take one last look inside. Over the weekend, the Vatican’s Sala Stampa selected 60 of the 5,000 journalists in Rome to tour the room that will witness the election of the new pope. Somehow, I landed a spot on that exclusive tour.
Beneath the frescoes of Michelangelo, laborers finalized the room for the coming event. Not all the chairs were set in place and some of the desks were still being assembled. Perhaps the voting blocs aren’t all that different.
The stoves or urns had been installed. An older and more ceremonial stove stood alongside a newer, more technological, one. The newer one will emit the colored smoke into the square. Could a newer cardinal, knowledgeable about the new social media, for example, be elected pope?
A control box was secured to the top of the newer stove. There was a large ‘start’ button in its center, colored red – matching the color of the cloths covering the cardinals’ desks or tables. Perhaps, the cardinals will select someone who will usher in a new start of some kind. There is a lot of discussion about the need to reform the Roman Curia. And, the JP2 Generation is all grown up, prepared to launch a springtime of faith in the heart of the Church.
There was one item of interest the carabinieri wouldn’t allow the journalists to see: The Sala Regia, the large curial and ceremonial hall that sits between the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican Palace and the Sistina itself. That section was closed off. Instead, the focus was on the Sistina itself where the desks were still being prepared and the stoves, both old and new, had been installed. Could it be that the cardinals will select someone from outside the curial world, electing someone capable of balancing the old and the new, tradition and reform?
Before leaving the chapel, I noticed two more things: First: The color of the cloths covering the tables. Last time, the cloths were brown. This time those cloths are crimson red. In the Catholic sacramental imagination, red represents the Spirit. It also stands for love; and, in particular, it represents the loving witness of the martyrs. Will the cardinals elect someone who is known for special pastoral zeal? Could the cardinals pick someone from a ‘far away country’ where the Church is living a courageous witness? Second: The door to the room of tears. After his election, the new pope will walk through that door. On the other side of it, he will vest in papal white. Who will re-enter the Sistina through that door, dressed in white?
In due time, we’ll know the answers to these questions. But, for now, let us remember our beloved Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI who meant so much to our generation. Let us remember and rejoice!
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Paul Shimek is our pilgrim journalist in Rome. He is a graduate student in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical JPII Institute at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.