When you cover a major news event, everyone wants to know what’s going on behind the scenes. Italians are so convinced – with some justice – that what you see is rarely what is really going on, that they even have a slightly humorous word for the close examination of what’s behind (dietro) the appearances: dietrologia.
But sometimes what appears on the surface can be more important than anything that’s hidden. Indeed, it may be the only way that what is deeply hidden can reveal itself.
In this regard, if you want to see a revealing human event, you have to come to Rome sometime – if at all possible – for a papal Conclave. There are other moving days – the birth of a child, the seventh game of the World Series, when Congress is in recess and the president on vacation – but there is nothing quite like the pageantry coupled with gravity of the first day of a Conclave.
On the surface, it’s just a bunch of elderly, but richly talented men coming together to pray, robed in scarlet, in the great St. Peter’s Basilica in the morning. And in the evening of the same day, they solemnly process into the Sistine Chapel, adorned with the frescoes of the great Michelangelo, and swear in an elaborate oath before God both to give their best judgment about who should be the next pope, and to remain forever silent about the process, unless the pope who is elected gives his explicit permission.
Yesterday, the Rome weather cooperated – sort of. When we entered the morning Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice, it was quite fine (by the end of the day, we TV reporters were chattering in more ways than one under snow and hail on roofs near St. Peter’s Square.)
I’m happy to say, the lines weren’t long for once to get into the basilica, even though the crowd completely filled the seats before it was all over. Lots of young people, too, who seemed to be in the new spiritual movements for lay people, and young males and females from religious orders as well. For once, the ushers were actually helpful and effective – not always the case on less important days.
And the Mass itself was sublime. It isn’t often enough noticed that the music in St. Peter’s for important events is simply superb. It’s rich, but simple, imposing but somehow at the same time almost restrained. The acoustics even midway back were very good. And the way the whole Mass was sung set exactly the proper atmosphere. We Catholics, believe it or not, can sometimes do it exactly right. (You can read Cardinal Sodano’s homily here.)
The cardinals all looked quite sober, sober almost to the point of being pained, about the task about to begin as they processed into St. Peter’s. Even NYC’s irrepressible Cardinal Dolan – whom the wags have said should take the name Hilarius II if he’s chosen – looked unusually grave. I myself don’t believe he has a serious chance, at least not this time. But it’s not impossible, and any man with an ounce of brains (Dolan has many ounces) and common sense would not start such a day lightly, whatever his chances.
After a break for lunch, they were transported to the Pauline Chapel, and from there it’s only a few steps into the Sistine Chapel. We’re fortunate these days that we can watch them on live video feeds take their places for the voting. And then, one by one, in the most solemn manner imaginable, each come forth to swear on the Gospel their intention to seek God’s will in the process and to keep their and their fellows’ votes a secret.
So far (in the wee hours of Wednesday morning as I write), despite all the worries inside and outside the Vatican, there does not appear to have been a leak about the first day’s voting, which did not produce a pope. Only black smoke.
In an event like this, the ultimate dietrologia, however, does not stop with the covert motives of the human actors. It goes all the way back, literally all the way back to the Creator and the spirit he sends upon those who in sincerity of heart seek his will. That’s dietrologia of the most important kind. It won’t be long, now, before we know something of what that will is for the immediate future of the Church and all humanity.
Note: This column may be reaf in French here.