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Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Eternal city meets modernity

Within hours of the end of John Paul II’s funeral April 8, street-cleaning crews were out in force in the area around St. Peter’s Basilica, even as some pilgrims continued to sleep in the plaza. Others were making a quick exit from Rome. The barricades came down, the buses left, hotels had empty rooms and the cardinals went silent.

In the days to follow, the scaffolding and white tents on hillsides and roofs that marked the territory of the modern communications industry gave the area around the Vatican the feel of a show between acts. There was a promise that something more would happen, that those who in recent weeks had passed on oceans of words and images to the rest of the world would return.

For the moment, however, all was quiet, especially the cardinals.

They were stalked by TV crews and other reporters hoping for a crumb of comment, some indication of what was going on, what they were talking about in their cardinal meetings every day. They were easy to spot. There were no more crowds, no other drama. The most they gave, however, were short waves, hesitant smiles and quick shuffles across the cobblestones. The wordless images, of course, played endlessly as news shows tried to squeeze something out of the pictures during this week when everyone knew important things were going on behind closed doors but no one knew what.

In so many ways -- the silent, hustling cardinals in the streets; the silent images of them, red robed and white mitered moving past the late pope’s tomb; the nine Masses in as many days of mourning where one or another carefully chosen cardinal presided and preached words that were subsequently parsed by commentators for the slightest hint of cues, signals, something bigger than just the words of a sermon -- so many things spoke of this meeting of 15th-century culture and 21st-century pace.

~ ~ ~

In the days immediately after the funeral, Rome turned rainy and cool. The skies spit at times, poured torrents at others. Makeshift shrines in patches of grass or behind the convenient iron grill grew soggy. Signs bearing the late pope’s image dropped from view not more than a 10-minute walk from the Vatican.

It seemed the entire city was taking a breather, knowing that as the cardinals went into absolute seclusion, the crowds would begin to return, waiting and watching, heads trained toward a roof and a small pipe, a smokestack, not much to look at, on the right side as you face St. Peter’s.

It is in between time now. Not between acts, but between entirely different dramas.

~ ~ ~

I hope you’re looking in on our Web site,, where there are daily postings by Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr., who, as you’ll see in this issue, was one of the few in Rome to actually get some live quotes from real cardinals (though they would allow identification only by geographical region); by NCR columnist Sr. Joan Chittister, a premier keeper of the question as well as that rare women’s voice amid very male proceedings here; and by Stacy Meichtry, who’s been hustling around to various public sightings of cardinals. Yours truly is also weighing in from time to time and there’s a photo gallery by NCR publisher Sr. Rita Larivee.

~ ~ ~

If is not yet on your favorites list, make sure to add it as the conclave gets underway. No one, of course, knows how long the conclave will last, but when the new pope is named, look to the Web site for a profile of the new pope and continuing news and analysis.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

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