EDITOR’S NOTE: CV is happy to introduce you to John Paul Shimek, a graduate student in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
This month he will be our pilgrim-journalist in Rome, covering the conclave, the election and installation of the new pope, and the new pope’s first Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Be sure to check these pages often for the latest updates!
In the future, he will be providing first-person/on-the-ground coverage of all that is happening in Rome. Future posts will be much shorter — we promise! But, first, JP wants to provide some background on the news coverage of recent events in Rome.
During the interregnum or sede vacante, but before the beginning of the conclave, the members of the College of Cardinals meet in order to discuss the momentous task awaiting them inside the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals will gather for meetings this morning and later this evening. Tonight’s evening session is scheduled to take place between 5:00 and 7:00 pm. I’ll offer some updates, later.
Right now, the same question is on the minds of all the journalists: When does the conclave begin? We’ve been asking that question of cardinals, curial officials, and Vatican press people. Despite their regular meetings, the cardinals have not settled upon a date for the beginning of the conclave itself. There is widespread belief that it will not begin until sometime next week. Once a date is set, I will announce it on these pages. Keep a look out!
Each of the cardinals’ meeting sessions – called general consistories or congregations – takes place on the second floor of the Pope Paul VI Hall inside the Vatican. That is just one floor above me right now – more on that in a moment. That hall is located on the southern side of the Vatican, behind the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but in front of the Domus Sancta Marthae, which is where the cardinals will be lodging after the commencement of the conclave.
Despite frequent discussions about their pledge of silence, the cardinals meet within close range of those reporting on the conclave and the election of the new pope. As I arrived for work this morning, I spotted numerous cardinals, entering the Media Center. I talked with Cardinals Burke (Apostolic Signatura, American), Collins (Toronto), and Siri (India), among others. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to avoid bumping into cardinals, here. In Pamplona, bulls charge at red. Here in Rome, Vatican journalists do!
The Vatican’s Press Office has established a Media Center for international journalists on the first floor of the Pope Paul VI Hall, just one floor below the cardinals’ meeting room. Inside the Media Center, journalists like me who are accredited to the Vatican can complete their work, access the internet, send e-mails, and follow official press conferences via live satellite feed. Make-shift television and radio booths have been installed in the center, as well. Bulletins and embargoed documents are available for our consultation at a special media desk in the center, too. As I write, journalists from around the globe, speaking scores of languages, are sending out news dispatches to countless networks on all the continents. I join more than five thousand journalists who are in Rome.
But, in order to guarantee the seclusion that the cardinals – and, ecclesiastical law – demand, certain measures have been put into place. And, we are expected to follow these measures to the letter.
Journalists and cardinals must enter the same building through separate doors. Each morning, I enter the hall through a gate connected to the house of the Missionaries of Charity, which sits next door to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The cardinals enter from the east side of the building and the journalists enter from the southern side. Large curtains and barricades have been set up so that the journalists do not come into contact with the cardinals while entering the building. All journalists entering the building must undergo airport-like inspections. (I think I set off the metal detector almost a half dozen times. Oops!) Those of us wanting to access the internet cannot do so whenever the cardinals are meeting upstairs. Whenever we are entering or leaving the Media Center, we must do so accompanied. In practice, this means that the journalists must leave in groups under the surveillance of at least one Swiss Guard. (On the plus side, this means I get to talk to Swiss Guards a lot!) Considerable police force is in effect throughout the Media Center. And, substantial forces have been borrowed from Rome in order to help the Swiss Guard maintain order.
Up until this morning, American cardinals were appearing at unofficial press conferences. The Pontifical North American College and the Office of Media Relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had been sponsoring these events. No other national group had been hosting similar regular press conferences. However, not long after the cardinals took their pledge of silence on the fourth of March, the Americans called an end to their unofficial conferences. This makes it difficult for people like me to get direct access to the American cardinals. If we want to speak with them, we need to contact their secretaries or hope to bump into them inside St. Peter’s square. Even if we succeed in those efforts, getting them to talk about substantive issues can prove quite difficult. Once I tell them I am a theologian and the brother of a priest, though, the cardinals seem more willing to talk – at least for a few moments – about general topics, which do not infringe upon their pledge of silence.
At an afternoon briefing at the Sala Stampa on March 6th, e-mails and other messages popped up on the smartphones of American journalists, announcing the cancellation of another unofficial press conference, which had been scheduled for just after the two o’clock hour. That cancellation invited questions from journalists. During the course of the official press conference at the Sala Stampa, it became clear that all the unofficial press conferences of the American cardinals would be cancelled. That has angered a number of reporters and journalists. But, I have been attempting to take all this in stride. That hasn’t been true of all the journalists, however.
During an evening work session at the Vatican’s Media Center, I happened to be seated next to some American journalists. One barked across his smartphone that the cardinals had “held up the tent” and had “put up a ring of silence.” He complained that the cardinals had “shut us out.” Despite the cancellation of the unofficial press conferences, Fr. Federico Lombardi will continue to host official briefings throughout the week, beginning at 1:00pm in the afternoon at the Sala Stampa.
Earlier, Fr. Lombardi told journalists that the cardinals are on a certain kind of viaggio. Their special path takes them through two different stages or phases: A pre-conclave phase and the conclave itself. We, the journalists, need to understand that the cardinals are seeking the discernment of God’s will all along this path. And, that task requires solitude and some seclusion from the demands of the international new media. Also, we need to understand that the cardinals are acting as one single college. Private press sessions with one select group of cardinals can send the wrong signal, in effect.
So, although we might relish ‘political’ reports from the cardinals, it is important that we maintain a sober spiritual outlook. Last night’s service at St. Peter’s basilica helped me to keep the right focus.
Last evening, the cardinals filed into St. Peter’s Basilica in order to sing Vepers in the context of Eucharistic Exposition and Adoration. The cardinals did not process into the basilica as a college. Instead, the service commenced after a two-part procession. In the first part, the cardinal archpriest of St. Peter’s basilica, Angelo Cardinal Comastri, and his attendants ascended to the altar. Then, afterward, the master of ceremonies and his attendants processed to the foot of the altar under the cover of an ombrellino. At the conclusion of the entire service, the master of ceremonies removed the Eucharist from the basilica. All three parts of the service were celebrated at the Altar of the Chair at the front of the petrine basilica.
I found the service quite moving and beautiful. It was touching to see all the cardinals kneeling before the altar, knowing that countless Catholics around the world were doing the same thing at the same time in cathedrals, basilicas, parish churches, and small chapels around the globe. During the service, I knelt next to religious sisters, seminarians, and priests in their 20s and 30s. Even some journalists joined us.
The cardinals proposed the service at the conclusion of their general congregation on March 5th. Their service took the place of their usual evening meeting, planned for March 6th. In addition to the cardinals, some bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, and faithful pilgrims were in attendance. No full choir performed at the service, but a schola cantorum did lead us through the spiritual songs, forming part of Vespers and Eucharistic Adoration. No sermon was preached to us during the service.
At first, faithful pilgrims were being told that the service was closed to the public. No access to the area near the Altar of the Chair was being granted. In fact, we could not get nearer than several hundred feet to the altar area. But, just a short time before the beginning of the service, we were allowed to file into an area just behind the bishops, priests and deacons, and men and women religious. Worship programs were being distributed to us as the procession commenced.
All three parts of the service – Eucharistic Exposition, Vespers, and Eucharistic Adoration – followed the usual structure. But, special texts were used for Vespers, helping to focus our attention on the spiritual needs of the cardinals, the momentous task of electing a new pope, and the diverse needs of the Church at this time.
There is time for just two final bulletin items. First of all, this is still Blessed Pope John Paul II’s town. Last night, I grabbed a quick bite to eat inside a small pizzeria just outside the walls of the Vatican. The entrepreneur had hung a number of images of the late pope on the wall behind the cash register. I have seen the same thing all over Rome. Most street vendors seem to be selling more images of John Paul the Great than his successor. I haven’t processed what all of that means or suggests. Of course, I love them both!
Last, I have spotted a lot of curial priests bustling across St. Peter’s Square, habited religious sisters heading into the Vatican, Swiss Guards standing vigil at the main gates, and a certain number of bishops in Rome conducting official business. Scores of them are in their 20s through 40s. Young is the Church! Even though it might seem somewhat passé to talk about the JP2 Generation, we’re about a decade out from the death of the great pope and we’re about to enter into the second pontificate after his, the JP2 Generation remains active, energetic, and quite alive in the Church. I am beginning to gather the impression that we’re all grown up … that, now, we’re accepting responsibilities at all the levels of the Church. Later, I’ll want to speak more about that. I think it reveals something important.
Alright, folks. There is much work to be done this morning and it is almost time for pranzo. I have to tackle an avalanche of e-mails from a number of radio networks, conduct a practice run with a podcaster back home in the states, field questions from other journalists, conduct some interviews and write some more articles, and attend a press conference at the Vatican. On top of that, I need to do what we’re all doing during this momentous time: Get in front of the Blessed Sacrament! Truth be told, that’s the real ‘center of action’ during these weeks.
The See of Peter might be vacant right now, but the Church remains faithful to her evangelizing mission both here in Rome and around the globe. We might be pope-less Catholics for a time, but we will never be hope-less Christians. Jesus is alive! The Gospel is victorious!
Keep a watch for more updates.
Ciao di Vaticano, JP