Cardinals prepare to choose next Pope

Cardinals began “an intense period of silence and prayer” inthe Vatican before their conclave to choose the next pope, saying they will stop speaking publicly to protect the strict secrecy surrounding the centuries-old tradition.

Cardinals began “an intense period of silence and prayer” in the Vatican before their conclave to choose the next pope, saying they will stop speaking publicly to protect the strict secrecy surrounding the centuries-old tradition.

The throngs of pilgrims who attended Pope John Paul II’s Friday funeral flowed out of Rome, leaving just a few scattered pockets of tourists today in a quiet, rainy St. Peter’s Square, some gazing forlornly up at the window where the pope traditionally appeared to greet the faithful.

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 Vatican released photographs of the pope’s tomb, a white marble slab, slightly raised off the floor and tilted, with the Latin letters IOANNES PAULUS PPII, and the dates of his 26-year reign. It also bears the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, a common symbol with roots in early Christianity.

The grave is in the small grotto once occupied by the sarcophagus of Pope Paul XXIII, which was moved into the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica after his 2000 beatification because so many pilgrims wanted to visit his tomb.

The unanimous vote yesterday by 130 cardinals to maintain public silence about John Paul’s successor 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 should not 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.”

At least two cardinals later turned down requests for interviews.

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.

American Cardinal Bernard Law presided at Mass today in Rome’s St. Mary Major Basilica, the church where John Paul appointed him archpriest, but did not give the homily – an apparent indication of how seriously the cardinals are taking the order for secrecy.

Navarro-Valls said 115 prelates will participate in the conclave, which will begin April 18 – all the 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 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 today. Visitors carrying backpacks, folded flags and rolled-up sleeping bags headed for train stations and car parks on the outskirts of the city. Few stayed around to see the sights.

“We have come here only to pray,” said Ula Maciejowska, 33, who was 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 pickpocketing.

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.

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