Ballot Smoke

by Juan L. Mercado

In the Philippines , we’ll probably hear  the cry by 430 Tuesday afternoon. More than  5,000 journalists accredited to the papal conclave have microphones and cameras clustered at  the entrance of Rome ’s Sistine Chapel. There, the  papal master of  ceremonies  will  order:  Extra omnes! “Everybody out.”

Aides, guards to cardinals over age 80, will  file out.  After doors are locked, Manila ’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and 114 other cardinals cast  the first ballot for a successor to Peter the fisherman.

Michaelangelo’s  painting of the “Last Judgment” hangs behind the altar  Behind the fresco are 21st century systems to scramble any communications with the world outside. Here, ancient ritual meets high-tech security.  Even the merest hint  of deliberations can bring on excommunication.

Can anyone muster 77 votes at first  go? “There is no clear front  runner”,  writes  National Catholic Reporter’s Thomas Reese. A fifth of the cardinals had red caps for a year. They’re matching faces with biodata.

Rewind  to 1978.  Karol Wojtyla from Poland was elected, on the eight ballot, as a dark-horse candidate. ”Karol who?”, asked many in Piazza  di San Pietrio  when the man, who took the name of John  Paul II,  stepped forward.

Tuesday ’s first  ballots  will be tallied  then  burned between 6  to 7 pm  Rome time. That’d  be past midnight here — too late for many Filipinos to watch smoke  waft  from the Sistine chimney. If black, it means  no pontiff  was elected.

Four votes on Wednesday would follow: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. And so on  — until a pope  is elected. Smoke would then   turn   white.  When  Benedict XVI was chosen,  in 2005,  “the smoke was more of a light gray color than obvious white”, recalls  reporter Barbie Latza Nadeau  “There was initial confusion.”.

This time around, the bells of St. Peter’s will clang.  It’ll  take about 45 minutes or  more, after the new pope says Accepto, he’ll  appear  on the balcony overlooking the piazza.  During that time, he chooses  a name.

Few noticed, meanwhile,  the gap in  Roman tailor  Gammarelli’s display window. Founded in 1798, this shop is today located near the Pantheon. It  dressed every pope since 1922.  Early  March, it  exhibited  three white cassocks: small, medium and large.  Multiple  cassocks  in the past   provided a choice from the portly John XXIII to his slender successor, Paul VI.

“The small model may suit Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines ”, the UK Guardian speculates. “The large model is (right) for  papabili such as New York archbishop Timothy Dolan… “

The  cassocks  now hang  in  a room behind the Sistine chapel,  known as the “Room of Tears,” Emotions  often choke up  the new pontiff as he heads there alone to change into the white cassock. After the dean of cardinals declares Habemus Papam,  he  steps forward.     

The new Pope faces an overflowing in-tray, writes veteran Vatican reporter John Allen.  One is the “global realities of Catholicism”. Two-thirds of  today’s  1.2 billion Catholics live in the southern hemisphere. That will surge to three-quarters by 2050 in a church that  “shifted southwards” over the past century, notes New York Times.

Indifference and secularization emptied Europe pews.  In contrast, Asia has 130 million Catholics,  up from 126 million, Vatican ’s statistical yearbook reports. Latin America ’s Catholics will rise to 600 million within two decades. There’d be 220 million  African Catholics by 2025.

Is  the Vatican is now in the wrong location?  .“It’s 2,000 miles too far north of its emerging homelands.“ writes Philip Jenkins in the New Republic .  At the conclave,  cardinals will look south.

Yet,  80% acts of religious discrimination are directed against Christians. In Lahore , Pakistan , this week, 3,000 thousand Muslim extremists attacked  Joseph Colony and burnt  200 homes. Police did nothing.

Catholics are arrested, beaten or killed from Nigeria to India . “Their  fate is worthy of papal attention as hairsplitting  over   worship..  “That doesn’t mean the next pope has to be a non-European,”   John Allen writes: ”But  there’s  a growing sense …he must act  for oftentimes beleaguered Catholics cohorts outside the West.”

The  “New  Evangelization’, which the last Synod endorsed, seeks to  relight  missionary fires of the faith, specially among alienated or dropouts from sloth or indifference.  In the US alone, there are  22 million ex-Catholics. That’s  “enough to constitute the US ’  second-largest religious denomination, if so minded”.

These  suggest preference for a pope with extensive experience working in parishes,  able to gauge what works at the grassroots. “It may mean  a pope who’s slightly less cerebral —  a pastor, not a professor.”

Administration: “A magnificent teaching pope, Benedict was but a mixed bag as a governor.  He was ill-served by key aides.  Reform of the curia” could  be the 2013 shibboleth.

Cardinals cite three pillars: (a) makes  them  (b) Accountability: Put right people in the right jobs, and  scrub poor  performers. (c) Modernization: Update with  21st century standards of business management,

Perspective:  “Benedict exemplifies is the Vatican ’s legendary penchant for thinking in centuries. Yet, this long view also insulated Benedict from the fallout of crisis. Still, his  stunning decision to resign separated  the end of his papacy from the end of his life. He ensured elbow room for future conclaves.


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