By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
While the pageantry of the consistory reaches full flower tomorrow with the public ceremony in which 23 new members of the church’s most exclusive club receive their red hats, today marks the most important “business meeting” of the College of Cardinals.
At 9:30 am Rome time, some 140 cardinals and cardinals-to-be filed into the Vatican’s Synod Hall to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. After a half-hour of morning prayer, the cardinals were to hear a presentation from Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and then to discuss the state of the church’s ecumenical efforts.
Symbolically, putting ecumenism at the heart of the agenda is intended by Benedict XVI to reinforce the Catholic church’s commitment to the quest for Christian unity, despite signs of paralysis and new upheavals in some of the church’s dialogues with other Christian bodies.
This afternoon, the cardinals have the opportunity over the course of two hours to raise whatever issues they like with the pope, who will then deliver a concluding address.
The business meeting is a closed-door affair, although a handful of members of the press were allowed in at the beginning to observe the opening prayer.
Outside the Synod Hall, reporters watched the various cardinals and cardinals-to-be arrive. When Archbishop John Foley arrived, the former President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and a figure well known to the world’s media, the press gallery broke into spontaneous applause. Foley was one of the few prelates to actually walk over to the press and offer a few words, referring to himself jokingly as “Il Cardinale dei Media.”
One reporter noted that Foley was still clad in his archbishop’s purple, leading him to explain that he won’t be a cardinal until tomorrow’s ceremony.
“The red goes on tomorrow,” he said.
Foley has been under the weather in recent days; he begged out of the Thanksgiving Mass at Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome, on Thursday in order to save his strength for this weekend’s festivities. He told reporters this morning that he still isn’t feeling 100 percent, but is determined to make it through the next three days.
Before the morning prayer, reporters had the chance to greet several of the cardinals who were mingling in the atrium of the Synod Hall. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, for example, the former private secretary of Pope John Paul II, came over to say hello. Asked how he felt to be back in the Synod Hall, where he had accompanied John Paul innumerable times over the course of 23 years, Dziwisz said simply, “So many memories.”
Inside the Synod Hall, Benedict XVI arrived at 9:30 am as the cardinals stood and applauded. He was flanked on his right by Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops and also secretary of the College of Cardinals, along with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College. On the pope’s left were Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, and Kasper.
Sodano delivered a greeting to Benedict XVI in the name of the other cardinals, observing that today is the feast of St. Clement the Roman, listed in the Vatican Annuario as the third pope of the Catholic church.
Most cardinals arrived well ahead of the pope, though a few straggled in after the opening bell; Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, for example, arrived ten minutes late and quietly took a seat in the back row of the Synod Hall.