TIME TO MAKE THE BIGGEST DECISION IN PAPAL HISTORY ; with Pope Benedict Now Suddenly Retired the Scene Is Set for the Conclave to Elect a Man Who Might Either Save the Roman Catholic Church or Lead It to near Extinction in Europe, Says MAUREEN MESSENT

By Messent, Maureen | Birmingham Evening Mail (England), March 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

TIME TO MAKE THE BIGGEST DECISION IN PAPAL HISTORY ; with Pope Benedict Now Suddenly Retired the Scene Is Set for the Conclave to Elect a Man Who Might Either Save the Roman Catholic Church or Lead It to near Extinction in Europe, Says MAUREEN MESSENT


Messent, Maureen, Birmingham Evening Mail (England)


AS A sometimes tearful Benedict took leave of his Cardinals on Thursday he wore the red velvet papal cotta, a small shoulder cape, and hand-made red leather shoes.

His last act, before leaving the Vatican to board his helicopter to Castel Gandolfo was to step out of the red shoes and return the cotta to his former head of household.

Red cottas and shoes are for serving popes only. By the time he flew off to the Alban Hills, Benedict would have been in his usual- and scuffed black or brown shoes.

Waiting for him at the papal summer residence where he will rest for a couple of months, were his two beloved cats, driven off in a double cat box the day following the retirement news. They are always by his side, sitting on his piano while he plays after dinner, and strolling beside him on walks.

But with the former Pope gone, work begins to prepare the Vatican for the Conclave.

Most of the Cardinals eligible to vote are now in Rome.

The scene is set for the Conclave to elect a man who might either save the Roman Catholic Church or lead it to near extinction in Europe. But even the Vatican resorts to a little domestic work, before the Conclave.

The first signs of this will be the exodus from near the Sistine Chapel of bishops and priests who live in the apartments where the Cardinals (117 in all)) will sleep during voting.

During the early years of his papacy, John Paul II realised that while the Sistine Chapel was a perfect polling station, its sleeping arrangements were appalling.

Tottery cardinals were retiring to camp beds in corridors. Lavatories were far apart, putting huge pressure on those Princes of the Church's elderly bladders.

There were a few embarrassing "accidents" and perhaps a tendency for them to jostle as they queued for scarce showers.

Particularly put out at this poor house-keeping was the sometimes querulous late Cardinal Basil Hume, of Westminster, who endured two Conclaves in 1978 (to elect Popes John Paul I and John Paul II) Cardinal Basil complained that if he lay flat on his tiny mattress, he'd wake with feet frozen from hanging over the bed-frame, and, if he curled up foetally, he'd be too stiff to move for a while next morning.

John Paul II ordered an annexe (a dormitory, if you like) to be built for Conclave use.

What evolved was Casa Santa Marta (St Martha's House) comprising 107 suites and 23 bedrooms, all en-suite and equivalent to a 2 or 3 star Rome hotel. Jostling for the last rooms was ruled out by the rule that all Casa Santa Marta's apartments will be allotted by ballot.

Between Conclaves, the new building houses priests and bishops in a university campus atmosphere, more functional than luxurious.

Now though, its residents are on the move. Bishops are seen pulling trolleys full of books and clothes to their temporary digs.

One old joke, born in Vatican, will restart its usual telling, a minute of levity from the solemnity of men knowing they're about to make possibly the biggest decision in papal history.

Some allege that Casa Santa Marta is a sight too comfortable: old thinking believes the greater the Cardinals' discomfort during Conclave; the sooner they will elect a new Pope. …

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