Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The "Build-Out"... and The Blackout

Once the General Congregation approved the closing and "build-out" of the Sistine Chapel for the Conclave to get underway, one group passing through shortly thereafter found that it didn't take long for the work to get underway.

One of Rome's most-visited attractions, the Sistina and adjoining Sala Regia are now off-limits until after the new Pope is elected, and just the prep is expected to take at least five days. Yet while the world will primarily notice the familiar four rows of tables lining the chapel's sides to the rood screen, the most intense piece of the preparation literally begins at ground level – as in 2005, a whole-room platform will be built to lift the floor and provide for the installation of a warren of signal-jammers underneath to ensure that the voting site is kept free of any attempt at wireless communication. 

The jammers likewise surrounded the Domus Sancta Marthae last time to maintain, but given the degree of technological evolution over the last eight years, the de-bugging operation at this Conclave – both to maintain its secrecy and keep the cardinals out of contact with the world – promises to be ever more intense, and is likely to include the confiscation of all devices belonging to the electors before the voting begins. 

As a sneak preview of the effort, even though the General Congregations aren't subject to the same level of seclusion as the balloting itself, Monday's start to the meetings led Vatican officials to shut down the wi-fi in the Paul VI Hall, where the sessions are taking place. The move aroused a round of justified grumbling from the temporarily accredited press, whose makeshift media center downstairs from the Synod Hall is now effectively disconnected while the daily meetings are on. And considering the adoption of iPads by a number of cardinals, don't be surprised if the discontent wasn't limited to the press room.

On the most closely-awaited front, meanwhile, it's currently hoped that a start-date for the Conclave can finally be discussed and possibly decided tomorrow as the last two of the 115 electors are expected to arrive. To that end, an evening meeting – which the body chose not to have yesterday or today – has again been added to the Thursday schedule.

As previously noted, the recent tweaking of the rules governing the process stipulates that the timetable of the election may not be set until every eligible cardinal who intends to participate has come to Rome and taken his seat in the meetings.

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In these dramatic days, there's discontent... and there's worse. And, well, today's Big News made for the latter.

After an anonymous cardinal leaked details of yesterday's sessions to the Italian press, in a chain of events that only makes sense in Vatiworld, the US delegation yielded to apparent pressure in shutting down its daily on-record briefings at the Pontifical North American College as the General Congregation agreed to maintain a "blackout" on interviews by all the cardinals in the run-up to the Conclave. (Above, the primate of the Gauls, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, is shown being hounded by reporters as he arrived at the GC on his bike.)

An unsigned USCCB statement announcing the move implied disappointment, noting that "the US cardinals are committed to transparency and have been pleased to share a process-related overview of their work with members of the media and with the public." 

As it began to circulate, the announcement ended up derailing the Holy See's own daily briefing on the General Congregation – featuring no cardinals, but the lead spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ and his deputies – where the press-ban quickly came to dominate the questions.

Featuring a half-hour of lunchtime Q&A with a rotating cast of two among the 11 Stateside electors, the three NAC sessions rapidly became a big draw – a major US network livestreamed one of the briefings in full, and by yesterday's round, over 100 media were said to have converged as Cardinals Seán O'Malley OFM Cap of Boston and Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston provided general summaries of the scene and their impressions, yet without violating the oath taken by each cardinal against divulging specifics. (An audio file of the event posted shortly after its close attracted so much interest that the server hosting it crashed under the demand.)

While the clamp-down was communicated by e.mail to reporters an hour or so in advance, it still came so suddenly that some press only learned of the change after arriving at the college for today's previously-scheduled briefing. Notably, the move came a day after the end of a two-part interview ran in prime time on the Canadian state broadcaster CBC with one of this Conclave's most-cited "contenders": the Quebec-born prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

In response to the fiasco, the Quote of the Day came from the USCCB media chief, Sister of Mercy Mary Ann Walsh, who gave the Associated Press the analogy that "In true old-style Catholic school teacher fashion, someone talks and everybody stays after school."

As the "blackout" will inevitably be flouted by cardinals speaking to reporters on background – in other words, you can bank it that the Curia crowd in particular won't be leaving their "court scribes" of choice in the dark – the move indicates a struggle for influence over the public pre-Conclave script, which the Americans had injected with two live-wire topics in the old guard's eyes: the importance of selecting a Pope committed to continuing a "zero tolerance" response to clergy sex-abuse, and a choice able to accomplish a clean-up of the church's chaos-ridden central government.

In any event, to see what all the fuss was about, here's fullvideo of yesterday's final session, courtesy of our friends at the Boston church's Good Catholic Life radio show who're broadcasting daily on-site:

As the Sox Nation crew likewise taped the audio of Monday's briefing – which saw Cardinals Francis George OMI of Chicago and Donald Wuerl of Washington meet the press – anybody got the first one so we can make it a boxed set?