Good morning from Rome.
Italian weathermen forecast a ninety percent chance of rain today, the first day of the papal conclave of 2013. I can assure you that nothing else about this event is anywhere near that certain. Sources close to the Cardinal-electors confirm what most of the world already knows: no one man has anything approaching the two-thirds of support (77 votes) he will need to ascend to the chair of Saint Peter. Virtually no one expects a decision today. Still, this has been a month of surprises, in an ancient city that is, by its own admission, not entirely comfortable with them.
At this hour, 8:00 a.m. Rome time, the Cardinals are rising and attending to their morning prayers. The city’s rooftops are a sea of white, the color of most of the tarps that cover the hundreds of temporary broadcast booths. At the Tiber end of the Via de Conciliazione, the papal thoroughfare at the base of Saint Peter’s square, the world’s major news networks have claimed the prime real estate: they are arrayed in an elaborate system of scaffolding that straddles the Via de Conciliazione and resembles something like the set of the old Hollywood Squares. The Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, German and Argentinian Tom Brokaws all have a perfect view straight down the urban mall; the recently cleaned façade of Saint Peter’s is their distant backdrop.
For news-gathering purposes, however, they might as well be on the moon. There are few more conflicted men and women than a reporter who doesn’t know what is happening: on the one hand, it makes for a truly exciting event, a break from the often monotonous, cyclical patterns of the contemporary news cycle. On the other hand, a journalist’s job is to know what’s going on and they’re not entirely comfortable in confessing when they don’t. That clicker, after all, is either already in your hand or very nearby.
Something’s got to justify that expensive news breaking logo and music though. Speculation, then, takes the place of news. There is much talk hear of the possibility of an American. I thought at first that I only heard the chatter because of the North American cycles in which I travel. But even cabbies are talking about it. The name most frequently mentioned is Cardinal O’Malley’s. Is it unlikely? You bet. But, as I said, this has been a month of surprises. Why an American? Why now? Well as our friend Rocco Palmo has put it, what matters more than any potential symbolic value at the moment is the skill-set of the papabile. The Church’s challenges are so great that the previously unthinkable has become thinkable. If the Cardinals are really serious about reforming the Roman curia, and it appears that they are, then they may consider an American. First, Americans have a reputation for managerial efficiency, earned or not. Second, the Americans have at least ten years of experience in managing reform in the wake of crisis.
We’ll see. For today, all eyes are on the chimney, which, by way, is something to behold. In order to produce the right color of smoke, a precise mixture of chemicals must be used. That requires an auxiliary device that must be managed by a complex of valves and digital technology. In other words, we are using the very latest technology in order to ensure that this all looks as old-fashioned as possible. Will it work? Vatican sources say that they will not have a practice run for fear that it would start a panic in the piazza. So add a potentially grey smoke to the long list of uncertainties as this day gets underway.
Today’s Schedule (All times ET):
— 10 a.m.-11:45 a.m.: Cardinals attend Mass in St Peter's Basilica, then return to their Vatican hotel.
— 3:45 p.m.: Cardinals travel from their hotel to the Apostolic Palace.
— 4:30 p.m.: Procession from the Pauline Chapel into the Sistine Chapel.
— 4:45 p.m.-8 p.m.: Each cardinal takes an oath, most likely followed by the first vote.