Cardinals began “an intense period of silence and prayer” today before their conclave in the Vatican City, saying they would stop speaking publicly to protect the strict secrecy that surrounds the centuries-old tradition of choosing the next pope.
The throngs of pilgrims who attended John Paul II’s funeral yesterday flowed out of Rome, leaving mainly tourists in a quiet, rainy St. Peter’s Square. The Vatican said a decision on their calls to put John Paul on a fast track to sainthood would rest with the next pope.
Italian Cardinal Francesco Marchisano celebrated the second Mass for John Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica, a daily rite over nine days that began with the funeral Mass. His homily praised “this infinite humanity” that he called the late pope’s hallmark.
The unanimous vote by 130 cardinals to maintain public silence was unprecedented. But in an era of continuous news updates and constant speculation, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls called the media ban an “act of responsibility.”
He asked journalists not to ask the cardinals for interviews, and said they shouldn’t take the prelates’ silence as an act of “discourtesy.”
“The cardinals, after the funeral Mass of the Holy Father, began a more intense period of silence and prayer, in view of the conclave,” Navarro-Valls said. “They unanimously decided to avoid interviews and encounters with the media.”
The lack of access to the cardinals was unlikely to stem the speculation about John Paul’s successor, with worldwide interest peaking in what could be a tight competition between reformers and conservatives.
Navarro-Valls said 115 prelates will take part in the conclave, which will begin April 18: all cardinals under the age of 80 except for Cardinal Jaime L. Sin of the Philippines and Cardinal Alfonso Antonio Suarez Rivera of Mexico, who are too sick to attend.
John Paul took the name of an additional cardinal – kept secret apparently to protect him from a government that represses religious activity – to the grave.
Cardinal Karl Lehmann was quoted by the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung as saying race and background will play a role in the choice of the next pope, but said there were no clear favourites and “probably also no firm alliances.”
“One must be moved through voting, contacts and discussion to a consensus,” he was quoted as saying.
John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Some cardinals have called for a Latin American pope to reflect the huge number of Catholics in the region. Others have said the papacy should return to an Italian, while there are contenders from elsewhere in Europe, as well as from Nigeria and India.
St. Peter’s Square, which was packed during the funeral by 250,000 pilgrims and dignitaries from 138 countries, was quiet a day later under a steady rain. Cafes and souvenir shops along nearby Via della Conciliazione reopened, finally freed of the crush of pilgrims.
“I can’t talk to you,” said a man hawking religious trinkets, key chains and figurines. “After 10 days without work, every second counts.”
The exodus of pilgrims was wrapping up as visitors carrying backpacks, folded flags and rolled-up sleeping bags headed for train stations and parking lots on the outskirts of the city. Few stayed around to sight-see.
“We have come here only to pray,” said Ula Maciejowska, a 33-year-old heading home to Oswiecim, Poland. “We will come another time to shop.”
Rome’s Mayor, Walter Veltroni, said Rome’s population of 2.6 million doubled over the past week, giving a lower figure than earlier police estimates of 4 million visitors. He said 1.3 million people filed past John Paul’s body.
Remarkably, the mayor said not a single incident of purse-snatching or theft was reported from Vatican City, the diminutive state that in 2002 was reported to have the highest crime rate in the world, mostly incidents such as pick-pocketing.
He said Rome’s main train station and the square at Tor Vergata University, where John Paul held a huge Youth Jubilee in 2000, will be renamed after the late pope.
The Vatican post office said special “vacant see” stamps, valid only until a new pope is named, will go on sale Tuesday. Collectors were expected to snap up the 700,000 stamps, which will be sold at the post offices around St. Peter’s Square.
Tourists strolling through the square praised the city for a quickly organised clean-up and expressed surprise that the pilgrims were already gone.
Georgina Corella, a 46-year-old surf shop owner, expected the city to be packed when she flew in from Costa Rica.
“I guess people just got tired,” she said.