Day Three: The most democratic day on the Vatican's calendar


There’s a sense in which the afternoon of a public consistory is the most democratic day on the Vatican’s calendar, because anyone who wants to, with no need for a ticket or special pass, can walk the corridors of the Apostolic Palace and several other normally restricted areas to deliver greetings to the newly appointed cardinals.

While access is completely open, that’s not to say it’s easy. Only so many people can be admitted at once, which means that crowds tend to swell outside the Bronze Door, and depending upon when one arrives it can take a half-hour or more to actually make it inside. Given that Italians and orderly lines are like matter and anti-matter, this means a half-hour of being squeezed into a human sandwich, with the constant fear of being stampeded to death. (One Italian next to me last night complained repeatedly that the crowd was behaving “worse than the ultras,” meaning the hooligans at soccer matches.)

Once our section was finally allowed to begin ascending the steps towards the Bronze Door, a colleague of mine was actually impaled by the press of the crowd upon a barricade. Had a couple of people not helped to extricate him, he might well have suffered a cracked rib.

It may be some comfort, however, to know that this aspect of the experience too is basically democratic. Last night I was wedged in next to Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, and a couple of his seminarians, who had come to salute Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and this was one occasion when the pectoral cross of a bishop did not quickly make crowds part. (Ruefully, I can add that it made about as much difference as my Vatican press credential.) Later I was separated from Aymond and found myself squeezed between the rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Ambassador of Argentina to the Holy See, all of us struggling for air and space.

The effort is generally worth it, however, because once inside, the scene is a bit like a Hollywood premier of a blockbuster movie … everybody who’s anybody is there. Part of the charm, too, is that even the other cardinals are basically just part of the crowd. The only prelate last night who moved with the usual Vatican security escort was the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was accompanied by a couple of Swiss Guards who would clear people out of his way so Bertone could greet the new cardinals without being waylaid.

New American Cardinal John Foley was one of two cardinals whose greeting area was the Sala Regia, originally the room of the Apostolic Palace in which monarchs and royal ambassadors were received by the pope. Given Foley’s 23 years of service in the Holy See, it was no surprise that he drew one of the longest lines of the night. (Although the line for the other cardinal in the Sala Regia, Leonardo Sandri, the former sostituto and currently prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, was equally prodigious.)

While waiting to greet Foley, I bumped into a sort of who’s who of the church and the Roman scene: outgoing Israeli Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur, for example, and Ambassador Monique Frank of the Netherlands; Bishops Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn and Thomas Wenski of Orlando, both of whom had been part of the drafting committee for the U.S. bishops’ recent document “Faithful Citizenship”; as well as Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Also present was John Carr and a colleague from the staff of the U.S. bishops’ conference, who had been in Rome along with the bishops attending a World Conference on Justice and Peace sponsored by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace.

I chatted briefly with Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, Peru, who was making the rounds with Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio, Texas. (As a humorous aside, this was probably one of the few milieus in which two of the world’s most senior Opus Dei bishops could move around together without attracting any attention at all.)

I congratulated Gomez upon his election during the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore as head of the Committee on Cultural Diversity. As a result of the recent restructuring of the conference, formerly separate committees on Hispanics, African-Americans, migrants, and other groups, were subsumed into one grand body. Gomez joked that he is now responsible for basically half of the American church, leading me to propose that his group be renamed the “Committee for Everything but the Kitchen Sink.”

Probably the most moving scenes of the evening came in the Hall of Blessings, where the longest and most emotional line was drawn by Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly of Iraq. In a consistory without any obvious superstars or slam-dunk new papal candidates, Delly in some ways was the man of the day. He was the only figure singled out during the morning ceremony by Pope Benedict XVI, who said the nomination of the 80-year-old Chladean patriarch was a way of signaling the pope’s concern for Iraqi Christians and his desire that peace may swiftly come.

While people typically joked with most of the new cardinals, or simply expressed their good wishes and posed for photographs, those who took Delly’s hands were often in tears, pouring out their concern and expressing their solidarity. Delly was gracious and consoling, but also obviously moved by the experience.

In one sign of the ecclesiological sensitivity that exists in Eastern churches about their primates becoming cardinals (which technically makes them part of the Roman, hence Western, clergy), Delly did not wear the cardinal’s biretta, but rather the normal headgear of the Chaldean church … albeit adorned this time with crimson rather than the normal black.

While in the Hall of Blessings, I took the chance to say hello to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, who I’ve interviewed a few times over the years while he was still the Archbishop of Agra. His predecessor in Mumbai, Cardinal Ivan Dias, today the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is known for being a somewhat withdrawn and very spiritual figure, whose normal response to requests for interviews is to invite journalists to observe him at prayer. Gracias, on the other hand, is a more outgoing and charismatic personality, who also has the reputation of being able to remain on good terms with both the more avant-garde elements of Asian Catholic theology and Rome.

For those reasons, Gracias is one of the new cardinals to keep an eye on in terms of future leadership in the church.

On the way out of the Hall of Blessings, I was struck by a large crowd that had formed around one of the windows. Then I recalled that it’s the central window in this hall from which the pope delivers his annual Urbi et Orbi address to the crowd below in St. Peter’s Square, and it’s also from the same window that the newly elected pope makes his first appearance to the world. There’s really no other time that an average person can stand in that space.

As a final footnote, while admission to the Vatican for the courtesy visits is free, my evening wasn’t. As I walked home, I bumped into a cook from one of my favorite Roman restaurants. Initially I thought he might have been on hand for the Vatican festivities himself, but instead he had been visiting the nearby Santo Spirito hospital, where his wife is awaiting the birth of their first child. Because he’s not working this week, and because undocumented cooks in Roman kitchens generally don’t have health insurance or paid parental leave, I offered him the few Euro I had in my pocket to help make ends meet.

Listening to my friend describe both his joy and his anxieties at the birth of what he hopes will be a healthy boy seemed, perhaps providentially, to offer an important bit of perspective. While the glitz of a consistory is always a treat, real life continues to go on outside those Vatican halls … and unless the new princes of the church can find ways to make the gospel they are now charged in a new way to pronounce and defend relevant to real life – relevant, for example, to faithful Catholics like my Lebanese immigrant friend, struggling to hold his family together in a new land – the pageantry of last night will ring a bit hollow.

That's perhaps something to think about, and to pray on, during today's Ring Mass.

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