The National Memo brings you an excerpt from The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Power, Personalities and Politics At The Heart Of The Catholic Church, which details the history, politics, and controversies within the modern Catholic Church. Author and journalist John Thavis has been reporting on Vatican affairs for over 30 years, and continues to cover the current conclave to elect a new pope — following the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI — that will begin on Tuesday, March 12.
The Vatican hill on the west side of Rome has hosted ecclesial drama since the earliest days of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Peter was believed to have been crucified here under the Emperor Nero, in the middle of a racing circus—a spot that today lies just below the Vatican’s duty-free mini-mall. Nero, according to church historians, used to throw nighttime parties in what are now the Vatican Gardens, illuminating the festivities by tying Christians to high poles and setting them on fire. The persecutions eventually ended, and Saint Peter’s tomb in the cemetery on the Vatican hill eventually became such a popular pilgrimage site that the Emperor Constantine decided to build sumptuous basilica there in AD 326. Local tradition says he was so enthused about the project that he took off his royal finery and began digging the foundations with his own hands.
Renaissance popes rebuilt the basilica half a millennium ago on an even more massive scale. It is architecture designed for theater, and the drama is never more intense than when a pope dies and a new one is elected. The dead pope is carried in procession and placed on a bier beneath the basilica dome, where he lies in state before his funeral. If he was much loved, like John Paul II, pilgrims come from around the world to pay their respects. But popes have not always been so popular. In 1559, when Paul IV died, Romans rioted in celebration and broke open the prisons of the Inquisition; in the late 1800s Pope Pius IX’s hearse was attacked by an anticlerical mob and his corpse narrowly escaped being thrown into the Tiber River. Only in the last century did popes become widely respected defenders of human rights, peace and social justice. Their funerals nowadays bring kings and queens, premiers and presidents to a kneeling position before the papacy. The pope is buried, usually in the basilica crypt. Some days later, a curtain is pulled aside and a new pope appears on the balcony of the church’s central façade, cheered by a passionate crowd of the faithful in Saint Peter’s Square. The transition is complete: Sadness has turned to excitement, and the death knell of the basilica bells is replaced by peals of joy.
In April 2005 an estimated two billion people followed those events on television or the Internet following the death of John Paul II. For the first time in history, papal transition became a global experience as Saint Peter’s Basilica served as the backdrop for endless TV stand-ups, pilgrim interviews and liturgical play-by-play commentary. As the 115 voting cardinals prepared to enter into conclave, journalists began reporting signs of what appeared, in retrospect, an almost inevitable outcome: the election of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Framed in tradition and colored by ceremony, the announcement of habemus papam must have seemed like one of the most choreographed moments of church pageantry to those watching around the world.
Yet what the world saw was one thing; what was actually going on inside the ornate hallways and chambers of the Vatican was quite another.
The papal election was the most fascinating news event I’d covered in many years. But for months afterward I was bothered by a nagging mystery. One day, long after the conclave paraphernalia had been put back in storage and the words “Pope Benedict” no longer sounded strange, I walked over to Saint Peter’s Basilica and went looking for a man named Giuseppe. I heard he had a story to tell.
It was day two of the conclave, April 19, 2005, and a faint odor of incense still hung in the air from the morning Mass, wafting from the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament across the nave of the great basilica, where it blended with a new and stronger smell, one that rose from an immense crowd of tired and sweaty pilgrims.
Enrico, an usher in Saint Peter’s, stood sentry like in a crisp blue suit and lifted his eyes toward the logjam of visitors. “Ciao, Giuseppe,” he said. “Another long day, huh? It’s never going to end.”
Giuseppe Fiorucci shrugged and kept moving across the patterned floor of the basilica. Enrico was a talker, and Fiorucci didn’t have time for a conversation. A short man with a steady gait, he steered a course around the mass of humanity and was glad, today as all days but especially today, that he was not an usher—glad that it was someone else’s job to deal with the questions in ten languages and the crying babies and “Where’s the bathroom?” and “No flash, please” and “Can we leave flowers?” and “How long before we get to the pope’s tomb?” Today he was glad he was only a sampietrino, a basilica workman, and that his blue denim outfit exempted him from dealing with all the needs of so many pious and insistent people. He reached the other side of the church, adjusted the glasses on his broad face and gazed back. The light was stretching across the main aisle now, illuminating the red and white patches of the Polish flags draped across backpacks and shoulders. So many Poles. First to see the body, now to see the tomb. Three million in ten days, the news reported. According to Enrico, never had so many people passed through Saint Peter’s. Enrico was just an usher, of course, but he sometimes had coffee with Bishop Lanzani, and Bishop Lanzani knew everything about the basilica. Or so they said.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. Copyright © 2013 by John Thavis.