Vatican City There they suddenly were yesterday: the curtains framing the balcony doors beneath the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, a brilliant splash of deep, rich red against the grey rain pelting the church, the square and its magnificent colonnade.
On that balcony the loggia of St. Peter's the next supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church will be presented to the world, likely some time this week. The curtains unfurled by Vatican workers marked the formal beginning of a spectacle that is at times beyond description, and more frequently beyond comprehension.
As the 115 cardinals who will elect the next pope retired from the outside world behind the Vatican's walls yesterday, they left Rome awash in confusion, rumour and ugly whisperings, with as many conflicting reports as there were vaticanisti delivering the supposed latest inside scoops on television.
At week's end, the Italian news media trumpeted reports that conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the late pope's closest aide and blunt instrument on doctrinal orthodoxy, had 40 to 50 votes sewn up, giving him a lead over the 30 votes committed to retired Milan archbishop Cardinal Carlo Martini, the champion of Catholic liberals.
Other accounts referred to health problems among the leading contenders for the papacy, and one story brought up the association that Cardinal Ratzinger nicknamed variously Joe the Rat, The Enforcer and the Panzer Cardinal once had with the Hitler Youth movement as a child in Bavaria.
"This is not a friendly match," a church historian told journalists.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec and primate of the Catholic Church in Canada, used a Sunday homily to deliver a barely disguised smack on the knuckles to fellow cardinals treating the papal election "as a political act based on some human calculation."
Indeed, given that the cardinals pledged unanimously last week not to talk to journalists until after the election is over, it might have been a mystery as to how so much of their human calculations were turning up in the news media. But members of the Vatican's full-time press corps pointed out that the only cardinals respecting the silence pledge are the boy scouts from Canada and the United States.
This morning at 10 o'clock, enveloped in music, incense and prayer, the cardinals were to enter St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate the Holy Mass for the Election of a Roman Pontiff set down in a 69-page liturgy complete with coloured reproductions from a 14th-century psalter.
Four hours later, they were to lock themselves in the adjoining Sistine Chapel. One by one, beneath a Renaissance fresco depicting the final, fearsome judgment on the souls of the good and the wicked, they were to swear an oath to tell no one about their deliberations.
After that, they were to hear a meditation on electing a pope, instructing them to behave solum Deum prae oculis habentes "having only God before your eyes" and then decide whether to go ahead and cast a first ballot that day or retire from the chapel to politick discreetly and get down to voting tomorrow
The thickest fog of rumour lies around how far the cardinals have progressed into the politicking.
Are they already talking names, or still discussing issues? Have ideological and geographical blocs already formed? Have the pope-makers emerged the "grand electors," those cardinals said to possess great influence in swaying their colleagues toward one candidate or another?
Several Vatican observers and scholars at church colleges in Rome, who spoke on condition they not be named, offered an explanation more benign than what has appeared in the media.
To them, the fact so many names appear on lists of papabili indicates that the election is still wide open, with no consensus forming around any candidate. They say the cardinals have largely spent the past two weeks getting to know each other, learning about each other's views and their leading concerns about the church, especially in their own regions.
What one long-time member of the vaticanisti referred to as "the tsunami that struck Rome" the two million or more people who came for John Paul's funeral has forced a number of cardinals to rethink the notion of perhaps electing a "transitional" pope, someone who would be competent but more or less be part of the wallpaper while the church adjusts to a post-John Paul period. The enormous celebrity status of the late pope has made them ask themselves whether they can afford to shelve that asset, even for a short time.
The observers do not see either Cardinal Ratzinger or Cardinal Martini as plausible candidates: the first because he would be too divisive; the second because he has a form of Parkinson's disease and likely doesn't want the job. (Since retiring as Milan's archbishop, Cardinal Martini has spent much of his time as a biblical scholar in Jerusalem.) Besides, both men are in their late 70s.
However, the two are well known and highly influential. They are considered pope-makers, along with Cardinal Battista Re, who was in charge of bishops during John Paul's Vatican government.
As for claims that Cardinal Ratzinger is the election front-runner, one Vatican observer suggested this might be information planted by other candidates who are almost as conservative as Cardinal Ratzinger, in a bid to scare votes to themselves in an Anyone-But-Joe ploy.