Quiet Vatican City primed for signal

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 10:10 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — St. Peter's Square betrayed little of the excitement of the past week — or the frenzied anticipation to come — two days after Benedict XVI helicoptered into history to become pope emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church.

A few tourists and locals lounged on Saturday around the majestic square's fountains and its 4,000-year-old red-granite Egyptian obelisk outside the papal basilica of the same name.

“It's not as busy as I thought it would be, but I expect it will get busier soon,” said Joshua Walden, 21, a British tourist in Rome with his girlfriend, Emma Connaughton, 19.

Connaughton, a nursing student, said that standing in the plaza reminded her of a grandfather's stories about popes down through the centuries.

Cardinals from around the world are converging on the city and will meet on Monday.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga told Catholic News Service that the general congregation would begin with the business of running the church during the extraordinary period when there is no pope. The cardinals will approve a budget and authorize the sale of special stamps and coins.

At the Vatican's post office, some customers were buying the four sede vacante (“vacant seat”) postage stamps that are available and valid for use only during the interregnum between popes. The stamps show an angel raising the pavilion of the Vatican agency called the Apostolic Camera, which is in charge of temporal goods.

Across Rome, hotels are filling up — and room rates are rising — as pilgrims and tourists arrive to join the wall-to-wall crowds that will fill the square throughout the conclave, awaiting news of who will follow the first pope to resign in six centuries. Prices tripled overnight for a room on Monday.

The cardinals are expected to set a date for the conclave that will choose the successor to Benedict as the leader of Roman Catholicism's 1.2 billion followers, but Maradiaga said it is unlikely to happen on the first day.

The conclave — from the Latin cum clave, meaning “with the key” — entails the cardinals being locked inside the Sistine Chapel while they vote for a pope.

Asked if there are secret meetings in backrooms and restaurants before the conclave, Maradiaga said, “These are stories. I never had those kinds of meetings during the last conclave. It's a different thing trying to elect a pope than vote for a candidate of a (political) party.”

Although 208 cardinals have been summoned to Rome for the conclave, there are only 117 cardinals under the age of 80 eligible to vote. Of those, 115 are expected in Rome. An Indonesian cardinal is too ill to travel, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, embroiled in allegations of misconduct with men in the 1980s, bowed out last week.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the former leader of Los Angeles Catholics whom advocates for sexual abuse victims have urged to abstain from voting, is in Rome. He said last week that Vatican officials had urged him to take part in the conclave.

“Without my even having to inquire, the nuncio in Washington phoned me a week or so ago and said, ‘I have had word from the highest folks in the Vatican: You are to come to Rome and you are to participate in the conclave,' ” Mahony, 77, told the Catholic Reporter late last week.

Until Benedict's successor is chosen by a two-thirds margin, black smoke rising from the chapel's chimney will represent an inconclusive vote.

White smoke and pealing church bells will announce a decision has been made.

Walden, the young tourist and an economics student from Northampton, England, admitted to being “a bit of a traditionalist.”

“It is very sweet that people have been coming here waiting for the white smoke for hundreds of years,” he said. “It's pretty amazing — all the world waiting for a bit of smoke. Lots of hope going into that smoke.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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