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Conclave reports by Dr. John Rao
III - Day One: From Catholic Merriment to Catholic Sobriety

Dr. John Rao, for Rorate Caeli 

Rome/Vatican City (Mar. 12, 2013) - Nothing has happened. But, then again, nothing was expected to happen. Anything happening too quickly would probably not have been good news for the election of good candidates anyway. Instead, two weeks before the Triduum, the cardinals have themselves been “entombed”, waiting for the “rebirth” of the Papacy - a rebirth that is in their hands. We believing Catholics are in that tomb with them, doing our part as members of the Mystical Body of Christ to get them out of their entombment successfully through our prayers. A Catholic sobriety has temporarily eclipsed Catholic merriment.

Yesterday’s celebratory mood continued into the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff this morning. Saint Peter’s was already two thirds full when I made my entry, around 8:45. Many of the early arrivals were seminarians, nuns, and correspondents with temporary approval to cover the Conclave, all of whom, like myself, lacked guaranteed seating. One hour later, fifteen minutes before the Mass began, the Basilica was packed.

Whether Benedict XVI was responsible for this or not, the entire morning retained the renewed sense of dignity that I associate with his Pontificate. Mass was preceded by the Rosary, and I am happy to say that the temporarily accredited journalists sitting around me said it, in Latin, as well. In fact, each of the three young members of the press sitting to my right received communion - on the tongue.

Many of my readers will probably have seen at least parts of the liturgy that followed. It, too, was as dignified as the new liturgy can possibly be, and all in Latin, except for the readings and bidding prayers, with Canon One of the new missal being used. Listening to Catholic tourists among those present for the ceremony, I got the clear impression that this was the first time that many of them had seen and heard anything this traditional in their lives.


I have not had a chance to read a copy of Cardinal Sodano’s homily, but on first hearing it sounded solid to me. Then again, so does Scripture, and yet Catholics and Protestants interpret Holy Writ in quite different ways. In any case, Christian love was his central theme.

While praising the practical international works of charity sponsored by the Papacy during the last few pontificates, and urging their continuance in the future, he underlined evangelization as the greatest labor of love that the Church can and must shoulder. Caritas in the sense of sharing the bread of Truth as well as physical daily bread were, he insisted, both essential, but in the proper hierarchy of values. Such caritas, along with the work of ensuring unity in the one Mystical Body of Christ, had to be especially dear to the Roman Pontiff. For Our Savior told Peter that if he loved Him more than others did, he would show this by feeding his flock and feeding his sheep. Aside from this, it was also good to hear Cardinal Sodano’s mention of the gratitude that the Church owed to Benedict XVI greeted with an outburst of sustained applause that our previous Pontiff, in his great humility, would probably have found overwhelming.

By 3 P.M. Rome time I made it back into the Media Center, housed in the Paul VI Audience Hall. After discovering, to my delight, that some of the people working there are old and sympathetic traditionalist friends, I then sat down to work in front of the television screens that dominate the room. That experience, like standing before the ATM machine, was another sign of the decline of the West, the finis gloriae occidentalis. All the endless “news” images, switching swiftly from bomb explosions in Damascus to Italian political scandals and then totally secular-minded blurbs on the “peaking” of “candidates” who were “running” for the “job” of the successor to a man martyred upside down on the Cross just a few feet from here painfully reflected the total superficiality of the world in which we live today.

What a contrast this was to the two or three groups of anywhere from ten to fifty Traditionalists (there was no doubt about who they were!) who spent yesterday evening in profound and anxious prayer in St. Peter’s Square. It was worth the price of flying here just to see the beauty of their faith and their never-ending concern for the Church they love so dearly. I saw representatives of all the traditionalist religious orders among them.

Covering an event of this sort has to be difficult for such representatives of the secular Press. The supernatural doesn’t yield its secrets up all that easily, and certainly not to the degree that the insatiable appetites of an easily excited and just as easily bored public requires. What, for example, did my colleagues here make of the cardinals entering into the Sistine Chapel and swearing their powerful oath, one by one? Those cardinals were much more accessible to them as “normal” people on exiting the Basilica this morning. Some of them were then quite gregarious---dare I say even a bit too “chummy” in their greeting of the crowd. But now, at 4:30 P.M. on the Feast of St. Gregory the Great they all looked serious, along with the rest of the fervent Catholic faithful. In short, yesterday’s Catholic merriment had disappeared. It had bypassed the natural gloom that would have justifiably accompanied Rome’s change of weather. It had also bypassed the jaded mentality that must come to playing with ephemeral “news” that can only nurture “creatures of a day”. It had take the form of a Catholic sobriety.

Catholic sobriety: that is the only term that I can think of to describe what I am sure that all of us believers who witnessed the Princes of the Church entering the Sistine Chapel felt. Again, let us return to the liturgical season. It is just a bit more than two weeks before Good Friday and what we witnessed today was an analogous tale of death and resurrection. Whatever the beauty of their surroundings, the cardinals had indeed at this moment entered a tomb. As I write this piece, they are dead to us entirely until they come out with new life to be dedicated to all of us---the life of a new pope.

Only those of us who are believing members of the Mystical Body of Christ can have a realization of what is happening to those cardinals who went through that moving ceremony of entering the Conclave and swearing their oaths on the Gospel, and who now remain in their splendid but temporary tomb. All believers are aware that their consciences, their minds, their hearts, and their souls are right now a tremendous battleground, where the Holy Spirit, St. Michael the Archangel, and all the saints are contending for control of their free wills. These free wills are being strongly tempted by other unhappy forces, human and demonic. We know this to be certain because we contend with the same forces every day. Those among us who have studied the history of the Church know how bitter disputes within Conclaves can be. And yet we also know that cardinals have taken their part in those disputes with the greatest courage, as did that Cardinal Carafa who became Pope Paul IV and told an ambassador promising that his government would do everything in its power to prevent his become Supreme Pontiff by thanking him---for then he would owe his victory only to God.

The weather became nasty and colder again for the two hours that I stood in St. Peter’s Square waiting for black or white smoke. There were a lot of people standing there freezing alongside me. That many of them were Romans could he gleaned from their unmistakable accent and language. That they were believing Roman Catholics could be ascertained from their laughter, which was filled with that playful bantering that the local faithful who are “at home” with their Papacy and know its foibles as well as its greatness always cultivates. I was deeply edified by them because, quite frankly, by 7:30 P.M. all I could think of was central heating, a piece of bread, and a glass of wine.

The cardinals were in there a long time before that black smoke came belching out. Why? What were they talking about? Who knows? I certainly don’t, although I have my speculations. I will let you know what they are, one way or the other, in the days to come. In the meantime, hold firm! After all, we will win in the end.