Front Row Seat in Rome

Loyola’s Melanie McKay reports from the Vatican during the papal conclave.

Melanie McKay, the vice provost for faculty affairs at Loyola University New Orleans, is sharing in the world’s fascination with the historic papal election—but on a much closer level. McKay traveled to Rome with husband Jason Berry, GlobalPost correspondent and ABC News consultant, to observe the proceedings. She shares below her reports from the Vatican.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

VATICAN CITY - It’s hard to sleep when you’ve just seen the election of a pope firsthand. It’s especially hard when that pope is a Jesuit, the only one ever elected, and you work for a Jesuit university, are married to a graduate of Georgetown and Jesuit High in New Orleans, and have a grandson entering that same Jesuit High in the fall. So I was up early, full of curiosity about the reaction of the city and of the Jesuits in particular to the new papacy. My first stop, therefore, was for Mass at the Chiesa Gesu, the main Jesuit church in the Eternal City.

Funded by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, this breathtaking church was constructed over more than a century, beginning in 1568. The building was finished in 1582, but the Baroque decoration for which the church is known was not added until the late 17th century, by the Rev. Andrea Pozzo, S.J., and other leading artists of the period.

Expecting some kind of celebration, I was surprised to find what seemed to be business as usual: only a few tourists milled around the huge church, one working from a tripod to photograph the high altar, with its spectacular golden sunburst, a couple talking quietly near the St. Ignatius Chapel, under the motto of the Society of Jesus, “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” others kneeling in prayer. Mass was a simple affair, held as usual in the small Capella Feriale and attended by a mere handful of laypeople and nuns.

Leaving the church, I was greeted with brilliant sunshine, the first in several days. Had the election of Pope Francis dispersed the dark, wet weather as the white smoke had replaced the black? It was tempting to see this dramatic change as symbolic of something. But what? What will Pope Francis bring to the world Church of which he is now pastor?

Some answers came at a press conference with the Rev. Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican Press spokesman. Lombardi’s remarks made clear that Pope Francis is wasting no time in establishing his public persona, one at odds with all forms of papal splendor. After the ceremony at St. Peter’s last night, for example, Francis declined the limousine waiting to take him back to the temporary quarters at Casa Santa Marta where he and his fellow electors had stayed during the Conclave, insisting instead that he ride back in the minibus with the other Cardinals. This morning, after prayers at the Saint Ignatius of Loyola altar in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (where St. Ignatius celebrated his first Mass in Rome, December 25, 1538), he broke from the Vatican security detail to speak with a group of small children playing nearby. Then he asked to be driven back to the Casa Santa Marta to pay his bill, which he did without fanfare but, Lombardi claimed, to set an example.

The new pope is widely admired for such simplicity. He is also looked to as a pontiff who can unite the northern and southern hemispheres, the Americas and Europe, and evangelize the young. As a theological traditionalist, he is seen as one who will provide continuity with the core values of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. As a social progressive with demonstrated commitment to the poor and vulnerable, he is seen as one who may steer the Church toward a greater focus on social justice.
He will spend the next days receiving his flock—Friday, he will welcome the full College of Cardinals in the Sala Clementina, the magnificent hall in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican; Sunday, he recites the Angelus with the faithful; Tuesday, he will be inaugurated as Bishop of Rome in St. Peter’s Square. I will be gone from Rome by then. But on Saturday, I will attend the Papal Audience with the media in the Aulo Pablo Sesto. With an estimated 6,000 media people in Rome right now, the audience will not be cosy. But I think it will be unforgettable.

Thursday, March 14, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

VATICAN CITY - Habemus Papam. And not only do we have a pope, but we have the first Jesuit pope in history. His election came as a surprise to the Vaticanistas who had singled out other candidates as probable winners. To the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, this seemed to matter little.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis I, is known for his humble lifestyle and deep commitment to social justice. News reports tell us that he cooks his own meals, takes the bus around Buenos Aires, and devotes himself seriously to pastoral matters. He greeted the cheering crowd of over 100,000 tonight with charming simplicity and gentleness.

A little after 7 p.m., white smoke pushed through the driving rain in Vatican City. The huge bells of St. Peter’s began to peal as the cry went up, “Bianca, bianca” (it’s white!). A wave of cheering faithful surged into the square, I among them, to await the appearance of the new pope. Glistening umbrellas bobbed everywhere as we stood in our winter coats, all of us trying to position ourselves for the perfect camera shot when he stepped onto the balcony.

Slowly, as the lights went on in the upper floors of St. Peter’s Basilica, excitement built in the crowd. All around me stood people from different places, speaking different tongues – a cluster of Italian college students, a couple from Japan, three nuns from India, several people from France – everyone waiting, and wondering.

From high on the balcony came the word of the new papal name, Franceso – so lyrical, it struck me, though I realized that in America and the English speaking countries he would be called Francis. The rain stopped at just about the moment he came out on the balcony. He asked us to pray, and the words of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” recited in Italian by so many people lent great solemnity to the moment, as if we were part of a massive liturgy. Later I learned that he said these prayers in honor of Pope Benedict XVI, who had been elected eight years ago. But now the moment belonged to Pope Francesco, and he handled it with diplomacy and grace, honoring his living predecessor.

Leaving St. Peter’s, we fell into a crowd so thick we could barely move, inching along in a wall of people – shades of Mardi Gras – and suddenly outside the gate to Vatican City, along came a military band in Napolean admirals’ hats, sending out a brass march that sent out a message of celebration not to be forgotten.

Wednesday, March 13, 11:30 a.m.

VATICAN CITY - Black smoke has just risen from the Sistine Chapel, marking another round in which no candidate has received the necessary 77 votes for election to the papacy. Some press sources speculate that we will not see the white smoke until Thursday evening, but this is just a guess, born in part of the tension of cooling the heels, waiting and watching the chimney.

Conversations with Americans around the Vatican reveal hopes for Church reform. People see this papal election as a potential turning point, an opportunity for greater transparency and an embrace of the concerns of young people, needed they say, to strengthen the church in the next generation.

In fact, two experts on Vatican matters believe that Benedict chose his resignation date with deliberate purpose—to draw the clergy and in particular the cardinal electors into an examination of a Church at a crossroads, a Church in need of reform. The scriptural readings and prayers of the Lenten season focus the mind and spirit on our personal failings and invite us to turn to repentence and new life. Taken collectively, these meditations may lead to institutional renewal and change within the Curia and the world Church. If there is any truth to these speculations about the day, right before Lent, that Benedict chose to resign, he was sending a profound message to those who will lead the Church after him.

News services here in Rome still list Cardinals Scola of Italy and Scherer of Brazil as leading contenders. Scherer, who is aligned with the “old guard” of the Curia, is believed to be less likely to spearhead change than others might. Marco Politi, a respected Vatican journalist, says that the longer the vote goes, the more Scola’s chances erode. Again, an opinion. Also mentioned as strong possibilities are Cardinal O’Malley of the U.S. who has been prominent in discussions for the last several days, and Cardinal Erdo of Hungary.

Throughout the mid-day lull, we wait.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ROME - My first thought this morning as I looked out the window was how expressively the Italians describe terrible weather: “Brutto tempo!” it was indeed, as the mass before the papal conclave began under a steady downpour followed by a raw March wind. But the brutal weather, which kept up throughout the day, didn’t deter the faithful who poured into St. Peter’s Square in the morning and surged to a huge crowd by late afternoon.

Though observers were not permitted into the Basilica, where a spectacular mass was celebrated by the Dean of the College of Cardinals (with, incidentally, Monsignor Christopher Nalty of New Orleans at the altar as co-celebrant), they seemed content with the larger-than-life broadcast of the proceedings on giant screens flanking the square. There were families with little children, teenagers in leather and jeans, grandmothers clutching rosaries, tourists jostling for position to snap pictures, and priests and nuns from all corners of the globe. The heavy security by the Italian Carabinieri seemed almost unnecessary, for such a cheerful and polite crowd.

The mass served as the spiritual and ceremonial beginning of the conclave, a time for the electors to focus and reflect on the momentous business ahead. Later in the day, the cardinals took the oath of secrecy in solemn procession, filmed by the global media, until the call went up “extra omnes,” or “everybody out!”—save for the cardinal-electors. Then, slowly the huge doors closed on what will from this point forward be secret proceedings.

During the early afternoon lull, I stopped over at the Hotel Columbus on Via della Conciliazione for a coffee. The hotel occupies a magnificent 15th century palazzo, formerly the family home of Pope Julius II. It is famous not only for its frescoes but also for the food served in its elegant restaurant.

In the press office where I am now sheltering from the rain, news anchors roam, experts give interviews, and producers prepare scores of alternate background pieces on cardinals to be ready for the one who becomes the next pope. The television screen cuts from shots of the crowd, under a sea of umbrellas, to the brightly illuminated façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, to the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, where everyone expected black smoke to rise—as it did—signaling no pope elected with the first round of ballots.

Monday, March 11, 2013

ROME - With the papal conclave beginning tomorrow, anticipation is fast mounting. You can feel it around the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square, where the arms of the Colonnade embrace growing crowds, though these cannot match the throngs that we will see once the conclave begins, as the faithful gather to watch for the white smoke that will rise to mark the a new pope.

At the entrance to the Vatican museums, heraldic signage reminds visitors that the Holy See is vacant—“Apostolica Sede Vacans,” awaiting the 266th pope since St. Peter. Just outside St. Peter’s Square, signs saying “In Conclave” decorate storefronts and cafes with familiar scenes from the fabled ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, now off-limits to all but the papal electors until the decision is made. In keeping with the vacant see, which will last until the end of the conclave, no Angelus was rung on Sunday.

While a short conclave is predicted, no one knows how long the voting will take. The cardinals will proceed single file into the Sistine Chapel tomorrow morning, celebrate mass at 10:30 a.m. and begin voting at around 4:30 p.m. The cardinal chosen by the 115 electors must garner two-thirds of the vote (77 votes in all). No one expects a decision on the first round, but after that, it’s anybody’s guess.

At the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola today, two Italian Jesuits shrugged their shoulders when asked about the probable outcome, though they expressed excitement about Cardinal Angelo Scola. “Do you want an American Pope?” they asked, quite interested in the American cardinals who have been mentioned as potentially viable candidates. We chatted in the nave of the magnificent church, which boasts a cupola that many believe represents the finest example of trompe l’oeil painting in the city. The central panel behind the altar depicting St. Ignatius at the feet of Jesus captures the humility that characterized his work in the world and the spirit that animates our commitment to educating men and women for others.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

ROME - As the bells rang throughout Rome on Sunday morning, cardinals from various corners of the world, here for the conclave, said masses at their “territorial churches.” Each cardinal has a residence and church to celebrate mass whenever he visits the Eternal City.

Cardinal Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paulo Brazil, celebrated the liturgy at Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale, a comparatively small church with seats for about 150 people. This morning all the pews were filled and some 250 members of the media stood. Cameramen were jockeying for positions to capture what seemed like every moment of the mass. Scherer reflected upon the gospel message of the prodigal son and at the end of the service, he greeted with a warm smile a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary and gently told them that he was not yet born when they married! He left the altar after the mass, going through the sacristy into the rectory and did not process out the front door, where a thick crowd of cameramen waited to photograph him leaving in his limousine.

In conversations today with journalists from Italian, Irish and American outlets, the consensus of speculation was that Scherer is the candidate of the traditionalists within the Curia, by virtue of his past experience in the Vatican administration, and Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan is seen as one who would potentially bring greater discipline to bear on the deeply factionalized Roman Curia. But remembering 2005, when few were predicting that Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger would win, we must acknowledge that speculation is speculation.

All the indications seem to be of a conclave that will last at least two days.

Take a look at photos from Dr. Melanie McKay's coverage.


Dr. McKay, HABEMUS PAPAM! It's a Jesuit. I was in Rome in 2005 when Cardinal Ratzinger was announced Pope Benedict XVI and I wish I were there today. Thank you for taking us along for the journey. Safe Travels back to NOLA!

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