Like stars at the academy awards, the princes of the church, dressed alike in black cassocks with red piping, red sashes, and red beanies, arrived in Rome to the coos of appreciation from loyal Vatican fans. The entire city was ready. Stores were stocked with food and drink to feed the princes in the manner to which they were accustomed; double malt scotch, fine Italian wine, and lobster ravioli. The papal tailor had already made the white cassock in three sizes, his sewing machines ready at a moment’s notice to make instantaneous alterations. He added a cute little ermine lined red cape to the ensemble, just for effect. The guys were getting ready to elect a fellow who would wear that cunning red cape and perhaps a pair of $400 red shoes. No expense is ever spared when the time comes to elect the Pontifex maximus.
While the rest of us poor slobs are wallowing in our sins during Lent, the clan of Catholic cardinals has apparently given themselves a dispensation in order to keep that good Italian wine flowing. During preparations for the conclave, we hear no talk of Jesus on the cross, no talk of fasting or mortification. Lent has been set aside, trumped by something far more important. The cardinals didn’t come to Rome to self-abnegate. As the Franciscan cardinal Sean O’Malley commented to the laughs of reporter, it’s hard not to get a good meal in Rome. Cardinal Dolan, apparently a gourmand, is on hand to recommend the best Roman restaurants. He’s stocking up since the food at the conclave is apparently known to be less than satisfactory. No grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for the princes of the church, even the ones who cry poor. No, the cardinals came to con-celebrate themselves with food and song and lots of attention from the papal paparazzi. Getting oneself on the front page of “The New York Times” or as a guest on MSNBC to talk about becoming an absolute authority is one heady experience. Whooping it up rather than offering it up will be the mantra of this Lenten conclave.
So there they were, dressed in the robes of royalty, wearing large gold rings for the laity to kiss, some even arriving in limos, all the while fancying themselves to be the image of the poor carpenter from Galilee who owned one coat and preached poverty. Few of the throngs of reporters seem to appreciate the irony. If some odd person watching the pomp might have the inclination to comment on the obvious discrepancy between Christ and his alleged vicar to-be, it is clear that the ceremony co-opts any concerns. It’s been like this since the beginning. God is great. Cardinals must look and act great and wear stunning red ermine lined jackets in order to approximate the divine.
For those who have eyes to see, there will be, however, specters at the conclave, both dead and alive, who will take the triumphant edge off the pageantry. Pre-eminently, the ghost of John Paul II, who appointed the vast majority of the bishops as a reward for orthodoxy, will hover about the miters holding his living gift – a still unresolved sexual abuse scandal. Living but not attending, is the spirit of Robert Finn, bishop of Kansas City, to whom the former pope and all of the cardinals and bishops turned a blind eye as he was recently convicted of covering up clerical sexual abuse in spite of the zero tolerance norms touted by such luminaries like James Martin. And there’s Bernard Law who escaped to Rome to avoid jail time in the United States, living in Rome in perfect security, still able to call some of the pre-papal shots.
If one is a serious follower of Jesus, the humble carpenter from Galilee, who advised those who truly want to follow him to give away all of their possessions to the poor, the pomp and the circumstance, the discussion of God’s will, the siren song of obedience to men with clay feet, is merely a front, a façade, if you will. The cardinals can’t really care about Jesus or the People of God. If they did believe they were acting according to God’s will, they would behave and dress differently. It’s really that simple. What the cardinals cared about, what drove them to Rome in silken cassocks and limos, what made them offer their signet ring to be kissed by those who allegedly existed on a lower social level is power. The cardinals exude power, the kind of absolute power that was finished off in the rest of the world by World War I. It is this power that led them to commit the most serious sins and almost get away with it. Very few news people at the conclave are discussing the miasma of dark deeds that trail just about every single cardinal. If they do, it is framed in the language of percentages; only 70% of the people remain dismayed about the handling of the scandal, so let’s go with the 30% who love spectacle and triumphalism. Spectacle boosts ratings on the evening news.
The fact of the matter is that the cardinals have very dirty hands, so dirty in fact, that power and pomp can never erase it. While the cardinals might try to disguise this dirt by wearing jeweled gloves like Raymond Burke or hide them under the lacey frills of their vestments, the smell of unspeakable evil will permeate the papal conclave. Cardinals with very, very dirty hands will be electing a man who most probably will also have very dirty hands. Few are talking about this, as if the sexual abuse of children and its cover up is an historical accident that is now past and thus meaningless, as if these men had nothing to do with it. Only God can judge, the cardinals might say, dusting off the shoulders that might some day bear the red cape. So God did, in person.
Now, Italian women don’t wear sweat pants in public, especially if they are a dirty pink. They also don’t wear camouflage jackets. Consequently, the carabinieri are unused to seeing women dressed so appallingly in their midst and felt the need to investigate the strange woman, especially since she was singing loudly. As they approached the woman in an attempt to remove her from the streets of Vatican City, something in her face with the missing front teeth and disheveled gray hair stopped them. And so, the woman made her way unmolested until she reached the Synod Hall where the cardinals were meeting for something called the “General Congregation,” a place where men jockeyed for electoral position prior to the actual conclave, a big getting to know you party, if you will. The woman just walked right by the impervious Swiss guards standing at attention in their striped and plumed best.
At first, the American cardinals had been engaging in a very secular practice – holding press conferences-while cardinals from other countries gave impromptu interviews in the street. Then the cardinals were directed to seal their lips. Although transparency would seem to be in the best interest of a church renown for stashing away its numerous skeletons in the closet, the cardinals, always of one obedient mind regardless of the consequences, complied. The camerlengo went so far as to install anti-bugging devices and blackout curtains – dutifully sewn by one of the few women who had anything to do with the conclave- in the Sistine Chapel where the conclave will be held. Silence in an effort to avoid scandal in all things is, apparently, golden.
After downing one of those delicious Roman lunches Cardinal O’Malley so appreciated, the cardinals reassembled in Synod Hall to hash out pre-conclave problems. Suddenly, the sound of trumpets blared out, “Now Thank We All, Our God.” The cardinals, unsure as to the origin of the music, stood en masse and began to sing their hearts out-
and then stopped on a dime when a dirty woman in pink sweat pants and a camouflage jacket walked onto the stage bowing and lifting up her hands, in the traditional papal wave saying, “My sons, my sons” in a language everyone could understand.
The music continued to play as God held Her Hands above Her Head and danced. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Sodano walked on stage to hustle the woman from the stage while the camerlengo, Cardinal Bertone apologized profusely for such an egregious insult to the honor of his princely brothers. There was no place for any woman at the conclave, unless she was emptying the trash while the cardinals were sitting at their evening meal in the local trattoria. When Bertone could not budge the woman, Cardinals William Levada and Raymond Burke bustled on to the stage. The other cardinals were completely disgusted. It was bad enough that a woman had invaded their hallowed space with her presence. This woman was a dirty woman.
After Burke failed to shove the woman from the stage, he stood in front of her in an attempt to reason with her. The woman’s green eyes sparkled with mirth as she gazed upon the uniformed, angry men standing before Her hurling epithets like, “disgraceful,” and “shameful.” Through her broken teeth, God said, “I am rejected and despised yet again. Would you, Raymond, also deny the Lord your God?”
Burke took so many steps backwards that he almost fell off the stage. Rather than fall, he plopped down on his sacred posterior, his red beanie hanging from his ear.
Her voice arose about the shouts. “Would you, my children, deny the Lord, thy God?”
“She’s not God,” Cardinal Pell of Australia yelled, “She’s a devil! Throw her out!”
A chorus of male voices chanted, “Throw her out, throw her out, throw her
And so, those who believed they imaged the divine threw the Lord their God out of the meeting where they were supposed to elect the one who would speak infallibly in Her Name. The random few who felt badly about the whole thing could not bring themselves to say anything publicly in fear that it would jeopardize their chance to be pope. One man thought that if elected, he would make sure he would find the woman and apologize to her. The rest sat in stony silence. They were quite fed up with this break in security. Small wonder that things were the way they were in Rome with these clowns running the conclave like they ran the Vatican with leaks all over the place. There was a reason why things never changed.
Thus, God was expelled from the midst of the pre-conclave meetings and walked where God can always be found – among the people. Only She knows if She will return.
March 11, 2013