Hugs, handshakes and photographs

ROME — A buffet dinner of ziti, cheese omelets, vegetables and small pastries set out in foil trays served with plastic plates, cups and flatware. Common table wine with screw-off caps, simply marked either “red” or “white.” Of course, everything meatless for a Lenten Friday.

This could be the description of any church supper in any parish in the archdiocese. Instead, in a fashion appropriate for the simple style of Boston’s new cardinal, it was the celebratory luncheon for new American Cardinals Seán P. O’Malley and William J. Levada.

Following the morning consistory, hundreds of invited guests flocked to Rome’s North American College March 24 for the luncheon and a chance to greet the new cardinals. On the lawn, two canvas tents were set up — one for Cardinal Levada, the other for Cardinal O’Malley — where guests could greet and pose for a photo with the new cardinals.

Nearby, five seminarians from the college played classical music, until the clouds that had been threatening throughout the morning finally let their rain fall.

Immediately following the reception, Cardinal O’Malley met with the press to give those who couldn’t make it to Rome a chance to see their cardinal.

“I would like to begin by thanking you [the media] for making it possible for Catholics in Boston to participate in this great day,” he said.

Wearing his new red robes, the cardinal said he was “anxious to get back into my old uniform.” However, “at least no one can doubt my sports affiliation,” he joked, sticking his foot out from under the robes. “I have red socks.”

When asked by a reporter if he was wearing any part of his Capuchin outfit, the new cardinal quipped, “Yes, my beard.”

In the evening, following tradition, the 15 new cardinals held calling hours for the general public in various rooms of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. Thousands of people waited as long as three hours to make their way up the long, marble staircase to greet the new princes of the Church.

The palace, which is otherwise closed to the public, was packed with people from all over the world.

As visitors entered the palace for the first time, it was common for them to gasp or simply stop in their tracks to take in the surroundings.

“Each room is more beautiful than the next,” commented one visitor.

Once inside, well-wishers searched for small signs indicating which room each cardinal would be in. In one room, close to one dozen Korean children dressed in traditional clothes surrounded newly elevated Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk of Korea. Several African men and women, in their native clothes, greeted Cardinal Peter P. Dery of Ghana.

Together with Cardinal Levada, Cardinal O’Malley greeted the public in the palace’s Sala Regia, an opulent room with walls covered floor to ceiling with elaborate paintings. Cherubs were carved into the gold gilt ceilings.

From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. hundreds upon hundreds of visitors — everyone from cardinals to students — stopped by to congratulate Cardinal O’Malley. Even the rector of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Father Stefano Guernelli, OCD, and several of his fellow Carmelite friars stopped by to greet the new cardinal and present him with a book explaining the history of his titular church.

Cardinal O’Malley concluded his long day of hugs, handshakes and photographs with a special gathering of his family and closest friends.

It was a dinner with “just the clan,” he said.