Little sign of pomp as Vatican gets ready

There were no little old ladies dashing about with fresh cuts of altar flowers.

There was no sound of choirs rehearsing for the big event. There was clearly no need for a fresh lick of paint in a basilica decorated by artists of Michelangelo’s stature.

But there was so little activity that many wondered just what the Vatican was planning for the inauguration today of the new Bishop of Rome.

Inside the basilica, the only hint of upcoming events was the installation of a platform to assist in television broadcasts.

A golf trolley with trailer attached emerged from the entrance beneath Bernini’s famous skeleton of Death and tooted at startled pilgrims before driving across the basilica to deposit the platform at the feet of the statute of St Longinus.

But that was pretty much it. Because the ceremony is scheduled to take place outside, there was no internal arranging of chairs or flowers or choirs. Instead, the basilica remained open to tourists up to the usual time of 6pm.

The Square, however, normally accessible 24/7, was sealed off from 11pm last night. As the Pope’s spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, explained earlier in the week, it was divided into zones to cater for the many different visitors, from heads of state to the disabled. Whatever space wasn’t officially delegated was open to everyone else from 6am today.

Tom McCarthy, a Bostonian whose family hail from Cork, flew in especially for the papal inauguration.

“There are a lot of religious in my family. My mother, Nora Kane, whose family worked in Murphy’s Brewery in Cork, has four brothers who are Dominican priests and two sisters who are Sisters of Charity. I am called after St Thomas Aquinas because that’s the parish I grew up in in Boston,” Tom said.

Deirdre O’Brien, from Dublin, who was also visiting the basilica, said she would not be attending today’s event, that she found religious crowds “overwhelming”.

“I’m not sure just how alive and kicking Catholicism is here in Rome,” she said. “Some of the churches we visited had tiny communities.”

Celebrations today are designed to show the rest of the world that Catholicism is very much alive, and not only kicking, but doing a very high energy can-can.

The Holy See press office was the place to go for the details of activities that were nowhere visible on the ground.

Fr Lombardi outlined how Pope Francis will move through the crowd by jeep or pope mobile before Mass starts at 9.30am, and how there are three rites specific to the beginning of the Mass, including the Imposition of the Pallium, a woollen cloak that is placed around the Pope’s shoulders and symbolises his universal jurisdiction; the presentation to the Pope of the Fisherman’s Ring and a rite known as the “Obedience”, where six cardinals (it used to be 12) make an act of obedience to the Pope.

Asked if the Pope’s straightforward style would mean a more simple liturgy, the answer was no. Asked if the Pope’s unpredictable movements would create a security headache, Fr Lombardi said he had competent minders who would adapt as required. Asked if having one lung would impede his singing, Fr Lombardi laughed and said his ability to sing “has nothing to do with a lung operation” and the question was best directed at the people of Argentina.

Today’s Gospel will be proclaimed in Greek. The Pope will give his homily in Italian and, as is his style, will likely contain improvisations. The ceremony is not expected to last much more than two hours, after which Papa Francesco will receive greetings of heads of official delegations inside the basilica at the Altar of the Confession, before heading to lunch.

In brief

KICKABOUT

Alfredo Di Stefano may have kicked a ball about with Argentinian compatriot Jorge Mario Bergoglio when they were growing up around the same time in Buenos Aires, the Real Madrid great has said.

Di Stefano, who is just over 10 years older than the 76-year-old Bergoglio, wrote in his column in sports daily Marca that the pair had gone to the same school and lived close to each other in the Argentinian capital.

“As you can imagine his election filled me with enormous joy,” Di Stefano wrote. “The Pope was probably one of those kids with whom I played football in the street,” he added.

“In the neighbourhood we put together proper matches with everyone against everyone until it got dark.

“You’ll have to ask him because at that time I was the famous one, from when I was very small, as I belonged to the River Plate youth academy, everyone knew me.”

MUGABE VISITS

Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe slipped into Italy yesterday for the inauguration of Pope Francis and officials went to some lengths to play down the technical infringement of an EU travel ban on Africa’s oldest leader.

Mugabe, who has been under the ban since 2002 because of allegations of vote rigging and human rights abuses, was whisked straight from his plane to Rome airport terminal in a van, together with his wife, Grace, and bodyguards.

Although the airport is on Italian territory, the 89-year-old was met by a priest who said: “On behalf of Pope Francis, welcome to the Vatican, welcome to the Holy See.”

He was then taken to a hotel on the Via Veneto.

Mugabe, a conservative Catholic, visited Italy previously for the funeral of Pope John Paul in 2005 and for ceremonies for his beatification in Apr 2011. In each case Mugabe was permitted to travel through Italy to the Vatican, which as a separate state is not subject to the EU ban.

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and has been accused of violence against his opponents and undermining the cabinet and parliament. Zimbabweans voted on Sunday on a new constitution curbing the presidency and reducing its length in future to two terms.

During his visit in 2005 for John Paul’s funeral, Mugabe embarrassed the British government by shaking hands with a startled Prince Charles, heir to the Queen.

CARDINAL IS SORRY

A South African cardinal has apologised for offending victims of child abuse when he described paedophilia as an illness and not a crime in a media interview.

Victims’ rights groups and others said the comments by Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, the Archbishop of Durban, were insensitive, especially given perceptions the Church has not done enough to root out abuse.

“I apologise sincerely and unreservedly to all who were offended by the botched interview, and especially to those who have been abused and need every help and support that the Church can give,” Napier said in a statement.

Napier, one of the 115 cardinals who took part in the conclave that elected Pope Francis, had told BBC Radio 5 that paedophilia was a “disorder” that needed to be treated.

“From my experience, paedophilia is actually an illness. It’s not a criminal condition, it’s an illness,” he had said.


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