Dispatch from Rome

Gregory L. Tracy travelled to Rome Feb. 26 with Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley to cover the farewell to Pope Benedict and the first days of the interregnum.

Feb. 27 -- The journey to Rome

This week, Boston said goodbye to its cardinal, sending him off with the hope that the next time they see him he will be stepping out on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. Some may question how likely that is -- even Cardinal O'Malley himself -- but there is hope nonetheless.

At Logan Airport, it was clear that all the staff understood the importance of the trip he was about to make and perhaps somewhere, in the back of their minds, that they might be helping out the next pope.

Throughout the process going through security and waiting for his flight, staff members -- police officers, TSA workers and airline desk employees -- would approach him. Some asked for a blessing; others just wanted to have a chance to say hello.

More than one employee asked for a photo to remember the occasion. As he walked through the terminal on the way to his flight one man shouted, "Good luck cardinal! Pick a good one!"

He greeted everyone as they came to him, always glad to pose for a photo, bless a rosary or a prayer card, or just listen to a story.

When delays in New York stood a chance of delaying his flight, staff from Delta Airlines worked diligently to rebook him through Paris, knowing that once he was on European soil his options for getting to Rome were far greater than if he were stuck in New York. Though no one actually said it, there was a pervading sense that all who interacted with him felt, in some small way, they were playing a part in bringing about this historic event.

After the overnight flight to Paris, Cardinal Seán arrived in what should have been far too little time to make his connecting flight to Rome through the chaotic Charles de Gaulle airport; but a delay in the Rome leg of the flight provided just enough of a window for him to make the connection. However, the arrival was not in time to be present for the Holy Father's Wednesday general audience, his last public appearance before stepping down as pope.

In the evening, I had a chance to visit St. Peter's Square and the Basilica. By that point there was very little sign of the nearly 150,000 pilgrims who had packed the square that afternoon.

In fact, almost all anyone saw were members of the media. It was impressive to see the huge number of reporters and photographers from around the world gathered to share this event with their audiences back home.

For me, this was the take away of the day: that despite some people's assertion that the Church is shrinking in relevance and that people have no more need for "organized religion" I cannot imagine another event that would garner so much worldwide attention.

Even though some people may not always want to hear what he has to say, clearly the pope is still relevant in the modern world.

Feb. 28 -- Sede vacante

Today was the moment that everyone knew was coming: The time when we would have a Pope Emeritus and the Chair of Peter would be empty.

Early in the day, the entire College of Cardinals met with Pope Benedict in his final audience to wish him well and thank him for his ministry.

At 10:15 a.m. the U.S. cardinals, who are staying at the Pontifical North American College at this time for the conclave, boarded the bus that would take them there.

Shortly after 4 p.m., we went up to the roof of the NAC where there were already a small number of seminarians who had staked out positions to view this historic event. That number would soon grow to scores as the time grew closer.

Cardinal Dolan, undoubtedly knowing the wonderful view the roof had to offer, also joined us. He waded through the crowd, greeting priests and seminarians, seemingly unfazed by the swarm of reporters and news photographers that rushed to follow him.

Then at about 5 p.m., as expected, the helicopter lifted off from the Vatican grounds eliciting cheers in waves from the seminarians. One held a sign that read "We'll miss you" and others waved papal and American flags.

As the papal helicopter faded into the distance heading towards Castel Gandolfo, a group of seminarians sang, wishing the Pope "Ad multos annos"!

In the evening Cardinals O'Malley, George and DiNardo participated in a press conference organized by the USCCB. Sister Marian Walsh, the USCCB's director of media, opened the exchange asking each of the cardinals their reaction to the pope's retirement and what they had said to him when they had an opportunity to greet him one by one at the morning gathering.

Cardinal Seán said that "there was a sense of sadness saying farewell to this man who had been our spiritual father for these eight years," but when he spoke to him, he assured the pope that the people of Boston are praying for him, that they love him and are grateful for everything that he has done.

At 8 p.m., I passed the gates of St. Peter's Square just at the moment the bells chimed in the hour, marking the moment that the Chair of Peter became vacant.

Unlike the scene earlier in the afternoon with thousands of people waving cheering the scene at that moment was of only a few hundred in a somber vigil. Some held candles, others prayed but there was the kind of stillness and silence that one finds in significant moments, when words seem to be just noise.

Most touching, perhaps, was that after a few minutes of the silence, slow measured applause began to spread through the crowd. No whistling or cheering, just soft handclapping. It seemed to be "bravo" to the Holy Father, whose job at that moment was done.

March 1 -- Boston Seminarians reflect

Today I caught up with Deacon Tom McDonald and Kevin Staley-Joyce, two Boston seminarians studying at the Pontifical North American College.

The North American College, frequently called simply the NAC by those familiar with it, is located just up the hill from St. Peter's square and is the home for seminarians and others from the U.S. studying in Rome.

When I spoke to Deacon Tom and Kevin I asked them to reflect on what it was like to be in Rome during this important time and if they had an opportunity to watch Pope Benedict the XVI's departure from the Vatican yesterday as well as any other thoughts on his pontificate they would like to share.

Deacon Tom, originally from Westford, told me he was, like most people, shocked by Pope Benedict's decision to resign, but since then has been strengthened by his admiration of the pope's humility and his confidence that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church and the cardinals.

Running errands, he was unable to be on the roof watching the pope leave the Vatican; however, as he heard the helicopter fly overhead he stopped and "said a prayer with a heavy heart. I wish I could have been on the roof."

Kevin, who grew up in Milton and later West Roxbury, feels that what Pope Benedict said at the Ash Wednesday liturgy, after heavy applause, has become a theme.

"He said, 'Thank you. Let us return to prayer.' I think that has become the theme of the end of his papacy, and in a larger way, for the Church."

Kevin connected that line with a point made by Pope Benedict in one of his books, citing the possibility for the Church to "become a mustard seed Church, which may need to retract and become smaller in order to become more contemplative, in order to revive itself."

On the roof, surrounded by his brother seminarians, Kevin displayed the American, Bavarian and papal flag. "We think he may have seen us," he shared.

Kevin remains convinced that what Pope Benedict did "wasn't just stepping aside, but an act of prayer and the result of many years of prayer."

March 3: Reflections of Msgr. Connie McRae

This morning, Sunday, March 3, Cardinal O'Malley joined a number of the other American cardinals in concelebrating a Mass at the Pontifical North American College.

The main celebrant and homilist was Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., vice president of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei." During the Mass about 50 seminarians -- including those from the Dioceses of Fall River and Worcester -- received the order of acolyte, one of the steps in advancing towards the priesthood.

One might think the most important aspect of the Mass was the moment when each of the candidates approached Archbishop DiNoia and was symbolically handed a liturgical vessel, a sign that the ministry of the acolyte is to assist the priest and deacon at Mass and to prepare the altar.

Instead, for me, perhaps the most significant moment was the "calling of the candidates," a roll call of sorts in which the name and home diocese of each candidate is read aloud. In response, each candidate stands, announces he is present and bows. The significance was not in the solemnity or the symbolism. Rather it was in hearing the multitude of dioceses represented among men receiving that ministry.

Among the candidates were men from all over the United States, from New York to Oregon, from Texas to Minnesota -- and even one each from our neighboring dioceses of Fall River and Worcester. It was a clear demonstration of the great resource that the North American College is for the Church in the United States.

Also this evening was the usual gathering of Boston priests and seminarians who are stationed in Rome. They meet once a month at a local pizza restaurant to share stories and stay connected. There I caught up with Msgr. Cornelius "Connie" McCrae. Msgr. McRae was a long time pastor in Norwood before coming to Rome to serve as spiritual director at the North American College.

Originally Msgr. McCrae thought "my student was teasing me" when he heard the news of the pope's resignation; realizing it was true was "obviously a great shock" but he is impressed at how the news has "captured the world."

According to Msgr. McCrae, even though the time without a pope can be difficult, "the Church is alive and well, in Rome, in my dear parish St. Catherine's in Norwood and in Boston."

He made it a point to attend the final Angelus of Pope Benedict because "I love this man, his writings, his leadership." He was brought to tears when the pope left the Vatican and by his words on arriving at Castel Gandolfo, "I am a pilgrim."

"We pray for him and for the one who will succeed him. We have been well led... and we look forward to God leading us into the next generation," Msgr. McCrae added.

March 4 -- Cardinals begin meetings

This morning, Monday March 4 at 9:30 a.m., began the first in a series of meetings that will lead to the election of the next pope.

During the meetings the cardinals will discuss what they feel are the important issues and challenges facing the Church, set a date for the conclave and, perhaps more importantly, begin to get to know one another and form their choice of whom they will vote for in the upcoming conclave.

142 Cardinals, 103 of whom are cardinal electors, met in two sessions during the day. The first was from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the second from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The meeting was led by Cardinal Dean Angelo Sodano, accompanied by the Cardinal Camerlengo Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., and the Secretary of the College, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri.

According to the Vatican, the meeting began with prayers to the Holy Spirit followed by technical instructions on how translations and voting procedures would be handled in the drawing by lots of the three assistants to the Camerlengo who will aid in the running of the Vatican in the coming days.

The bulk of the morning meeting, the Vatican said, were taken up by the swearing of the oath of secrecy. The first portion of the oath was recited by the entire body of cardinals. Then each cardinal stepped forward, placed his hand on the book of Gospels at the foot of the crucifix and completed the oath.

In the afternoon, Father Raniero Cantalamessa led the group in spiritual exercises, the first of two occasions required by the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis.

In the midday break between the two sessions, Chicago Cardinal Francis George and Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl briefed the media on the day's proceedings at the Pontifical North American College located on Rome's Janiculum Hill overlooking the Vatican.

March 5: Cardinals DiNardo and O'Malley address the media

Today, someone finally asked the question that has probably been on the minds of many people in Boston: If he is elected Pope will Cardinal Seán O'Malley still continue to wear his Capuchin robes?

The Cardinal artfully dodged the question, stating that he has worn them for over 40 years and plans to continue wearing them; he also said he has no intention of "changing uniforms" anytime soon.

This morning's meeting -- technically the third congregation, because yesterday's evening session was considered the second congregation rather than a continuation of the first -- included seven more cardinals then the evening before, bringing the total in attendance to 148, 110 of whom are cardinal electors.

Unlike yesterday's meetings which consisted mainly of opening addresses and explanations of procedures, today's session involved the cardinals hearing 11 "interventions" -- a term mainly used in the Church to describe a reflection or address. According to the Vatican the topics covered included "activities of the Holy See and its relations with bishops throughout the world; Church renewal in light of Vatican Council II; the Church's position and the need for the New Evangelization in today's world with its diverse cultural environments."

It was also announced today that the College of Cardinals had sent a telegram expressing gratitude and prayers to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

As in yesterday's briefing with Cardinals George and Wuerl, the cardinals took questions from members of the media. In addition to the question about Cardinal O'Malley's robes, questions to the two cardinals included such topics as: whether the existence of a former Pope will influence the cardinals' decision, whether a quick or slow conclave could result in Italian or non-Italian pope, and whether they feel the need to see the report created in the wake of the "Vatileaks" scandal that Pope Benedict had said would only be shown to the next Pope.

Both cardinals did their best to answer, while acknowledging that they could not speak of the content of the day's proceedings.

However, the main topic of inquiry remained the same as the day before: what was their opinion on the potential start date of the conclave. And again today, both cardinals expressed the need for the body to take its time in hearing reflections on the issues facing the Church and discerning the man that each thinks should be the next pope.

Interestingly, Cardinal DiNardo echoed the sentiments of Cardinal Wuerl in yesterday's press conference, citing the coffee breaks -- the time in which the cardinals can speak among themselves informally -- as one of the most important aspects of the gathering.

Now that the resignation of Pope Benedict is behind us and the meetings of cardinals have begun, many seem to be focused on issues of influence, corruption and power brokering as the Church moves to elect its next leader. This public demonstration of prayerfulness by the cardinals could serve as a helpful reminder that, ultimately, the entire process of the congregations and conclave are principally centered around the cardinals asking the Holy Spirit to give them wisdom and discernment beyond their own natural capabilities.

March 6 -- Interviews, no more

In my dispatch today I had planned to share with you some details of the afternoon press conference with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington.

However, the news of the day turned out to be that the press conference never happened, and will not happen again.

With just an hour's notice, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Director of Media Relations with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent out a five word email "Today's Briefing at NAC cancelled."

The daily briefings by American cardinals had become quite a popular event among journalists here to cover the conclave. Following each day's briefing at the Vatican, about 100 journalists and about two dozen television crews would make a short trek up the Hill to the North American college to hear the American cardinals reflect on the day's events. The previous two days since the general congregations had begun Cardinals George, Wuerl, O'Malley and DiNardo had done an admirable job of juggling their desire to be open with their vow of secrecy.

Later, in a formal statement to the press, Sister Mary Ann wrote, "The U.S. cardinals are committed to transparency and have been pleased to share a process-related overview of their work with members of the media and with the public, in order to inform while ensuring the confidentiality of the General Congregations.

Due to concerns over accounts being reported in the Italian press, which breached confidentiality, the College of Cardinals has agreed not to give interviews."

The email canceling the American press conference came in the midst of the daily Vatican briefing. Asked about the abrupt cancellation, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that the Vatican had not ordered the Americans to keep silent but instead it was the cardinals themselves who decided to avoid speaking to the media. He also added, that it "seems natural that the path towards the conclave leads progressively to greater reflection and discretion."

With the press conference canceled, the remaining public event of the day was the gathering of the cardinals at St. Peter's Basilica at the Altar of the Chair of Peter to pray for guidance and the help of the Holy Spirit in selecting the next Pope. As I predicted yesterday, it was inspiring to see the college of cardinals, among whom is the next pope, gathered in prayer and adoration in such a public way reminding the world that the center of this process is God not man.

With the resignation of Pope Benedict behind us and the conclave seemingly in the immediate future, restrictions on time and resources necessitate that I return to Boston this week. Consequently this will be my last Dispatch from Rome. Yesterday, March 5, other members of the Catholic media secretariat in the Archdiocese of Boston, including representatives of the CatholicTV Network and The Pilot New Media Group arrived in Rome. I leave confident that they will continue the ongoing coverage of the conclave, its run-up and, of course, the announcement of the next pope -- whether he has a beard or not.