VATICAN CITY – The two American cardinals sat on the stage, microphones in hand, fielding questions from the world’s news media on everything from the delayed arrival of some of their colleagues to their own wardrobe choices if elected pope.
Most experts doubt the upcoming conclave will select an American pope, but the U.S. cardinals already are exerting a surprising amount of control over the message – simply by talking. Their lively daily briefings contrast sharply with the sober summaries from the Vatican spokesman and almost nothing from anyone else.
More than 100 journalists and two dozen television crews from the U.S., Britain, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Italy showed up Tuesday, packing an auditorium for what has become the daily “American Show” at the North American College, the U.S. seminary just up the hill from the Vatican.
Cardinals Daniel Di Nardo of Galveston-Houston and Sean O’Malley of Boston held court, gamely trying to answer questions about when the conclave will begin, why five voting-age cardinals still hadn’t shown up and whether they’d all be home in time for Holy Week – all without violating their oath of secrecy about the closed-door deliberations.
“I don’t think I can get into anything in particular about what happened in any of the congregations today,” Di Nardo began.
He then delivered a message that several American cardinals have repeated in recent days, responding to questions about whether the problems in the administration of the Holy See were weighing on the deliberations about who might next be pope.
“Obviously we want to know and learn as much as we can relative to governance in the church,” Di Nardo said. “The Curia [Vatican bureaucracy] is part of that issue. Certainly we want to discuss and learn what we can, and I think that will go on as long as cardinals feel we need the information.”
It’s a message that has made headlines, simply because it’s one of the few coming out.
“Yes, the American cardinals, by being willing to speak, have filled the media void,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican,” a how-to guide about the Vatican bureaucracy.
But, he noted, the message is also old. “People have been calling for the reform of the Curia since Vatican II.”
Di Nardo and O’Malley drew laughs when one reporter asked O’Malley, a member of the Capuchin order, if he would continue to wear his trademark brown robes if elected pope.
“I’ve worn this uniform for over 40 years and I presume I will wear it until I die,” he said. “I don’t expect to be elected pope, so I don’t expect to have to change.”
At the Vatican, meanwhile, spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi presided over a more sedate affair, showing a videotape of the three silver and brass flying-saucer-shaped urns into which the cardinals will cast ballots during the conclave, and updating reporters on the whereabouts of the five MIA cardinals.
“Everyone knows how to evaluate his commitments,” Lombardi said when asked what the cardinals could possibly have on their agendas that was more important than being in Rome for the election of a pope. “They know they have the obligation and commitment to come for the conclave, and they know the congregations have begun and are making their plans to arrive.”
Those still making their way to Rome were Egyptian Patriarch Antonios Naguib, and Cardinals Karl Lehmann of Germany, Jean-Baptiste Pham of Vietnam, Kazimierz Nycz of Poland and John Tong Hon of Hong Kong. Naguib and Lehmann reportedly arrived later Tuesday, while Nycz had to preside over a conference of bishops at home and told reporters in Warsaw he’d be in Rome by Wednesday. It wasn’t immediately clear when the Asian cardinals would arrive.
Lombardi also announced that the Sistine Chapel had closed to visitors – one of the first signs that the election was nearing. Workers in the coming days will install a raised false floor to cover anti-bugging devices, as well as hook up the stove where the ballots will be burned.
When asked if he had considered inviting cardinals to his briefings, Lombardi said he thought about it and decided against it.
“The conclave and the path towards it ... is an election that each member makes in his conscience before God,” he said in an email. “That requires a reflection by the college as a group that can develop and mature in total freedom.”
He said the oath of secrecy also was a problem, limiting how much cardinals can divulge. And then there’s the matter of which cardinals to invite given the global makeup of the College of Cardinals.
“If some cardinals think it’s useful to communicate, naturally preserving the reserve they’ve committed themselves to concerning the election, I have no objections,” he said. “I do my part helping journalists.”
Di Nardo acknowledged it was “more American” to brief the media when it was pointed out to him that the U.S. cardinals were the only ones hosting regular readouts of what the cardinals had been up to.
“We want to honor the confidentiality of the discussions, but at the same time let people — and letting our own folks know at home — that we are meeting day by day, there are interesting things happening and we are moving ahead,” he said.
That sense of accountability — gleaned after the sex abuse scandal humbled the U.S. church and taught its leaders to be more transparent — is not widespread among church leaders elsewhere. Only a handful of cardinals from other countries have stopped to chat with journalists waiting outside the meetings; a few have granted one-on-one interviews with media, mostly from their home country. None are hosting daily briefings.
“I love the strategy of the U.S. cardinals,” said Iacopo Scaramuzzi, Vatican correspondent for the Italian news agency TMnews. “The others don’t do it for a variety of reasons: Some because they haven’t developed a culture of church transparency, others because they don’t have the means, others don’t have time. But I think the European bishops could follow their example.”
The U.S. media team is substantive: Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is running the show, and most of the seven U.S.-based American cardinals have come with a spokesperson. Walsh said she has received “hundreds” of requests for one-on-one interviews with the media-friendly Americans.
American cardinals are tweeting and blogging and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, considered a papal contender, is still conducting his weekly radio show, which will broadcast live on SiriusXM’s “The Catholic Channel,” on Wednesday from the North American College.
A few hours later, he and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago will preside over Wednesday’s briefing.
“As the Vatican is the kingdom of silence, especially during those very specific times, this is a real breath of fresh air,” said Frédéric Mounier, the Vatican correspondent for the French Catholic newspaper “La Croix,” who was on hand for Tuesday’s session.
But while such briefings may help journalists liven up their reports, Mounier doubted such openness would improve the chances for an American pope.
“I feel as a consensus here that a U.S. candidate, whoever he might be, has very few chances once in the Sistine” Chapel, he said. “It seems to be just a matter of general feeling against the Uncle Sam. Nothing more than that.”
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