12 Mar 2013

For whom the white smoke calls

I am in Rome standing overlooking the place where the papal conclave opens today. St Peter’s Square offers a glorious sun-kissed backdrop to a system of religious governance that has sustained since before the Middle Ages.

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I was based in Rome for a year of two dead Popes – 1978.

Paul, the last in a long unbroken line of Italians, had died just five weeks after my arrival. My cameraman – Mario Rosetti, a fully paid up member of the awkward squad, had, at the age of seventeen worked as a deputy photographer for Mussolini.

The stunted dictator told Mario to photograph him from the ground so that he would appear taller. Italian Labour laws made getting rid of Mario impossible, so he had to be “utilised” and I had been sent as his utiliser.

In the late seventies it was easy to be captivated by the pomp, the spectacle, the unbroken link – supposedly – with St Peter. It was possible to be seduced, not thankfully by wandering priestly hands, but by the romance, history and quaintness of Vatican life.

Yet even whilst I was there, scandal enveloped the Vatican Bank and its laundering practices. The chief mover and shaker, the corrupt Archbishop Marcinkus reigned ruthlessly over all. One’s Vatican press pass was at risk should one write of his doings.

Unable to agree on one of the big Italian cardinals to follow Pope Paul, the conclave that year settled on the sweet and harmless Albino Luciano – then Archbishop of Venice – very much a second-tier Italian prelate. He had a penchant for talking to the animals and birds.

So humble was he that he chose the names of his two predecessors – John and Paul – for his name as Pope. But he lasted just 33 days. He died of a heart attack – I believe brought on by the pressures exerted upon him by the Curia (the Vatican administration) who resented his simplicity.

If the red hatted cardinals hadn’t come up with Polish John Paul II, those scandalous times might have been addressed.

But JPII was a Pope for the world. And within days we were aboard Popeforce One heading for Santo Domingo and Mexico.

On that first flight I remember the jumbo’s intercom squawking into action, and the Polish tones of Pope announcing “this is your Pope speaking” – and so it was. Then it was to Africa, Poland and beyond.

His charisma overwhelmed his theological and catholic conservatism, and the world and the church were blinded to the unadressed problems lurking beyond the Vatican walls.

When Benedict ascended to the Papacy in 2005 we witnessed the coming of an insider, a man who knew precisely where the bodies of the catholic system were buried.

But the very first time we saw him – 40 minutes after his election had triggered the white smoke – we knew that at 77, heading for 78, he was too old to achieve any of the changes the church so urgently needed.

Several Cardinals told me then that Benedict had been actively keen to become Pope.

But amid God’s refusal to “call him home”, exhausted, he seems to have simply given up. His was a dim Papacy many critics believe.

The madcap evangelicals stormed across Latin America and Africa, gobbling up traditional catholic communities. The rot inside the Vatican bank (of which more in my next Snowblog) continued and worsened.

Benedict’s going has been preceded by arrests, swoops by the Italian Finance police, charges of widespread money laundering and worse.

And I have not even mentioned, the unnatural vow of priestly celibacy, the role of women in the church, and above all the sexual abuse that climaxed in the resignation of Scotland’s Cardinal O’Brien confessing inappropriate sexual conduct.

Today the romance is dead. The wonderment is stilled to that which might accompany the filming of some old epic, like Ben Hur.

The 115 cardinals have to find someone – not to live as St Peter did – but to cast out the money launderers, and the sex pests, and bring the church to a place that is compatible with our 21st century world.

Does such a man – it won’t be a woman – even exist?

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