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American cardinals fill media void in Vatican

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 9:15 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — The two American cardinals sat on the stage, microphones in hand, fielding questions from the world's news media on everything from the delayed arrival of some of their colleagues to their own wardrobe choices if elected pope.

Most experts doubt the upcoming conclave will select an American pope, but the U.S. cardinals are already exerting a surprising amount of control over the message — simply by talking. Their lively daily briefings contrast sharply with the sober summaries from the Vatican spokesman.

More than 100 journalists and two dozen television crews from the United States, Britain, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Italy showed up on Tuesday, packing an auditorium for what has become the daily “American Show” at the North American College, the U.S. seminary near the Vatican.

“Yes, the American cardinals, by being willing to speak, have filled the media void,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican,” a how-to guide about the Vatican bureaucracy.

But, he noted, the message is also old. “People have been calling for the reform of the Curia since Vatican II.”

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman updated reporters on the whereabouts of the cardinals.

“Everyone knows how to evaluate his commitments,” Lombardi said when asked what the cardinals could possibly have on their agendas that was more important than being in Rome for the election of a pope. “They know they have the obligation and commitment to come for the conclave, and they know the congregations have begun and are making their plans to arrive.”

Those still making their way to Rome were Egyptian Patriarch Antonios Naguib, and Cardinals Karl Lehmann of Germany, Jean-Baptiste Pham of Vietnam, Kazimierz Nycz of Poland and John Tong Hon of Hong Kong. Naguib and Lehmann reportedly arrived later Tuesday, while Nycz had to preside over a conference of bishops at home and told reporters in Warsaw he'd be in Rome by Wednesday. Lombardi also announced that the Sistine Chapel had closed to visitors — one of the first signs that the election was nearing. Workers in the coming days will install a raised false floor to cover anti-bugging devices, as well as hook up the stove where the ballots will be burned.

When asked if he had considered inviting cardinals to his briefings, Lombardi said he decided against it.

“The conclave and the path towards it ... is an election that each member makes in his conscience before God,” he said. “That requires a reflection by the college as a group that can develop and mature in total freedom.”

He said the oath of secrecy also was a problem, limiting how much cardinals can divulge. And then there's the matter of which cardinals to invite given the global makeup of the College of Cardinals.

“If some cardinals think it's useful to communicate, naturally preserving the reserve they've committed themselves to concerning the election, I have no objections,” he said.

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