The dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, leads mass at St. Peter's… (Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty…)
VATICAN CITY -- Steeped in tradition and pageantry, the ceremonies that will produce a new pope officially began Tuesday morning when 115 Roman Catholic cardinals celebrated Mass in the majestic St. Peter’s Basilica.
In resplendent red capes trimmed in gold, and with white miters soaring from their heads, the cardinals filed into the cathedral, two by two. The procession passed the tomb of St. Peter and the body of Pope Pius X, leading finally to the famous Bernini altar that dominates the church. There, each cardinal bowed to kiss the altar
The mass known as the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice is a final step before the cardinals gather later Tuesday behind closed doors in the Sistine Chapel to vote for a successor to Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope to resign in six centuries. It is not known how many days the election might take. Ballots are burned after each vote, producing black smoke when no candidate has reached a two-thirds majority, and white smoke when the pope is chosen.
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Perhaps alluding to the divisions that have emerged as these “princes” of the church in the last week debated the task before them, Angelo Sodano, dean of the cardinals, urged unity and love.
And he called on God to help them make the right choice: “We implore the Lord, that through the pastoral solicitude of the cardinal fathers, He may soon grant another good shepherd to his holy Church. In this hour, faith in the promise of Christ sustains us in the indefectible character of the church.”
Sodano presided over the Mass by virtue of his seniority in the College of Cardinals. But at age 85, he is too old to participate in the election itself.
The church was packed for the solemn ceremony, with hundreds of pilgrims and tourists stretching their cameras into the air to snap photos.
The audience broke into applause when Sodano thanked Benedict for his “brilliant” pontificate. He recalled the service of past popes and prayed for continuity.
“The last popes have been builders of so many good initiatives for people and for the international community, tirelessly promoting justice and peace. Let us pray that the future pope may continue this unceasing work on the world level,” Sodano said. “Moreover, this service of charity is part of the intimate nature of the Church.”
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Sodano also reminded the cardinals of what he described as the core mission of the Catholic Church.
“There is no action more beneficial -- and therefore more charitable -- toward one’s neighbor than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the good news of the gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God,” Sodano said. “Evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person.”
The Catholic Church, representing 1.2 billion faithful throughout the world, is a troubled institution, with the Vatican plagued by scandal, bureaucratic mismanagement and rival visions over the future. Those issues, by numerous accounts, have also led to divisions within the private meetings the cardinals have held in the run-up to the conclave.
Italian newspapers reported Tuesday that a simmering battle between two rival factions of cardinals reached a climax at the final such meeting, when Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who backs reform of the Vatican, clashed openly with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Bertone, as secretary of state under Benedict, was the top official within the Curia, as the Vatican bureaucracy is known, and its staunch defender.
Speaking at the so-called General Congregations held ahead of the conclave, Braz de Aviz reportedly drew applause from cardinals who have grown increasingly impatient with Bertone’s purported concentration of powers at the Vatican.
The row started on Saturday when Braz de Aviz reportedly gave a speech criticizing Curia management, according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
Despite cardinals promising not to divulge details of their discussions, Italian newspapers have been packed all week with tantalizing details of who said what.
On Monday, at the final session of the General Congregations, Bertone spoke in defense of efforts made by the Vatican’s secretive bank to comply with international anti-money-laundering legislation. Both La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera reported that he then bemoaned the fact that Braz de Aviz’s earlier speech had been leaked, suggesting that the Brazilian was responsible.
The newspapers reported Braz de Aviz then asked to speak and denied he had spoken to journalists. Corriere della Sera reported that he said someone else was secretly taping the meetings and leaking the contents. As he sat, he was applauded.
Media leaks have been a prevailing theme of the pre-conclave meetings. Alarm over the leaks led to pressure on the American cardinals at the conclave to halt their daily news conferences.
The leaks, which have been widely picked up by international media, have suggested that pro-reform cardinals are backing Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, while Curia-based cardinals are backing Brazil’s Odilo Scherer. La Repubblica reported on Monday that Scherer gave his strong backing to the Curia in a speech on Tuesday.
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