You’ve probably seen on TV how reporters swarm around leaders coming out of closed-door meetings and the politicians step up to deliver their soundbites for the cameras. The Vatican held a big closed-door meeting on Friday and a wave of cardinals — the “princes of the Church” who rank among the most prominent leaders of Roman Catholicism — emerged at their lunch break to find a pack of journalists eager to pounce on them with questions. I’m in Rome for a few days and was out there waiting for them in a parking lot between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope Paul VI Hall where they were meeting. The scene was quite different from those “normal” media scrums.
The session was a rare meeting of cardinals from around the world who are here at the Vatican for a ceremony on Saturday when 23 men “get their red hats,” i.e. join the College of Cardinals whose members under 80 years old elect the next pope. They were discussing the Catholic Church’s sensitive relations with other Christians — Orthodox they want to get closer to, Anglicans who are drifting further away, Protestants who are increasingly divided and Pentecostals who are encroaching on their flocks. These sessions presided over by Pope Benedict are supposed to remain confidential. So the men who emerged from the meeting looked and acted like anything but a bunch of politicians hoping to make it on to the evening news.
Some strode past the waiting journalists flashing half a smile and a quarter of a wave. Others found polite variations of the old “no comment”, like one who offered the (weak) joke: “If anything important had happened, you reporters would know it already.” Another walked straight up to a reporter from his home town, said he knew there was no way he could leave without talking to him, and then confessed with a smile: “But actually, I have nothing to say.”
Time passed and more silent cardinals glided by. There were dozens and dozens of them, all identically dressed in black robes with bright red buttons, sashes and skullcaps. One tall one sported a dashing cape. A shy one was nearly hidden under a kind of wide- brimmed hat that nobody outside Vatican City has worn in at least a century or three. We heard bits of talk in Polish and another language we couldn’t identify. When a gust of wind blew the skullcap off one cardinal, he cried “Halleluja!” and went scampering after it. I dutifully noted this down, not knowing if I’d get any other quotes for the day’s story.
Journalists scoured the crowd hoping to spot a familiar chatterbox. One slipped into a waiting car before any of us could reach him. The news spread quickly about the one who got away. Others just didn’t seem to be there. If the reporter was a devout Catholic, this was the time to start praying for news.