Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Scarlet in the Air?

That sound you hear in the distance? No bother -- it's just the frenzy of Rome's travel agents, greasing the palms of every Vatican gadfly in sight in the hope of getting some well-sourced leg-up on the Pope's intentions for the creation of new cardinals.

While they're at it, they should grease mine, too.... But oh well. Welcome to the Italian Way and the Triennial Ritual.

Buzz has been flying in recent weeks with predictions of a consistory to be held on February 22nd, the feast of the Chair of Peter, on which John Paul II gave out red hats in 1998 and 2001.

Initial speculation aired elsewhere confidently speculated that it would all be announced on Epiphany Day, 6 January. But as the whole purpose of the consistory exercise -- well, outside of welcoming the new influx of the historical successors to the clergy of Rome with a week's worth of high-octane soirees -- is to stand aside and watch as the travel people get as crazed as St. Blog's comboxes when homosexuality is at issue, the reports hit a wall. Yet again.

And of course they did. Consistories, as a rule, are announced as close as is humanly possible to the Pope's intended date, usually an interval of four weeks. The shortest period between announcement and actual event came in 2003, when John Paul called a 22 October consistory to make 21 new cardinals at the Angelus on 28 September.

Word that it was coming had leaked out 72 hours before the papal confirmation, so it was no surprise. As Rome was struck with a freak power outage that morning, however, the dissemination of the list was delayed -- Sala Stampa's printers and copiers were down, reporters couldn't file, the works. But the dead giveaway was that the Vatican had quickly set up loudspeakers on a generator provided by Italian state television so that the Pope could be heard; any other Sunday, the appearance would've simply been cancelled or postponed.

The behind-the-scenes process works like this: The Pope picks his names and they're arranged in order of seniority (curial officials by the precedence of their dicastery, then archbishops and bishops by tenure) by the Secretariat of State. In the days preceding an announcement, Stato telegraphs coded messages to the nunciatures of the cardinals-designate-to-be. The nominees are then informed by the nuncio (or, in his absence, the mission charge d'affaires) in a phone call which usually takes place 72 hours prior to their public naming. So the actual naming isn't like Oscar night or anything, where the the "winners" are announced and the "losers" are sitting there trying to keep a smile on.

The Vatican approach helps keep the Susan Lucci moments at a minumum -- this is not to say, however, that they don't occur. They do.

The last four consistories (1994, '98, 2001 and '03) have been announced at the Sunday Angelus. But a Pope can make his intentions known in whatever way he chooses -- by the spoken word, printed notice, whatever.

However the announcement is made, once it comes a uniquely Roman cottage industry leaps into a fevered pitch. Within minutes, the travel people start booking blocks of hotel rooms for the anticipated influx of well-wishers (Americans and Western Europeans traditionally bring groups which number into the hundreds, or even thousands); Gammarelli, Barbiconi and the other tailoring houses go into overdrive and stock up on their moire' (the watered silk used to make Cardinals' birettas, zucchettos and fascias), restaurants get booked up a month in advance and the airlines are quickly inundated.

During Consistory Week, Rome turns into one huge international festival, with pilgrims and ecclesiastical glitterati converging on it as at no other time aside from the vacancy of the Chair of Peter.

Of course, who actually gets a ticket to the Big Dance is a much more uncertain question....

Suffice it to say this: All bets are off with a new Pope, especially one who was a curial heavyweight for over two decades and, particularly as Cardinal-Dean during the interregnum, has had an almost-unparalleled vantage to size up the College of Cardinals, and the world hierarchy at-large, at close range. Now that Papa Ratzinger has the mandate to implement his well-honed thoughts on what voices should be given the added heft which comes with donning that magical shade of red, surprises are more than just possible.

As for the most important function which princes of the church exercise, the voting complement comprised of cardinals younger than 80 currently numbers 110. An electoral college of 120 was, of course, the original maximum established by Paul VI in 1975, but John Paul felt free to dispense with it and gladly did so, first in 1998 and then in 2001, after which consistory there were a hypothetical 135 electors.

Ten cardinals become ineligible to vote this year, when they mark their 80th birthdays. Among them are the Tridentine darling Jorge Medina Estevez (23 December); the American William Wakefield Baum (21 November); Des Connell, the retired archbishop of Dublin (24 March); Marian Jaworski, the longtime Wojtyla friend who remains archbishop of Lviv of the Latins (21 August); and Agostino Cacciavillan, the former nuncio to Washington and widow of Benelli (14 August).

With the election of Joseph Ratzinger (Class of '77) as Pope and the death of the retired Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin (Class of '76) last year, Baum, also elevated in the consistory of 1976, is the last remaining cardinal-elector to have been given his red hat by a Pope who wasn't John Paul II.