Opening the conclave

Anyone hoping to get into the last celebration of Mass in St Peter’s before the conclave in 2005 would have been disappointed. Eight years ago, from the death of Pope John Paul II to the election of the new pope, St Peter’s Square was packed.

On 12 March at the start of the new conclave to elect the successor to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI the square was emptier than on a busy tourist day in summer.

It took less than ten minutes to get through the security checks under Bernini’s columns, climb the steps to the basilica and pick an uncrowded spot behind the video operators halfway up the nave.

Subtract the security guards, the priests, seminarians and nuns, the school groups, the ubiquitous media operators, and St Peter’s would have been about half full.

The Mass in Latin celebrated by the whole College of Cardinals included Bible readings in English, Italian and Spanish. The homily in Italian by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was brief and made scant mention of either the coming conclave or the urgent topics facing the Church today. But his opening words of gratitude to Pope Benedict XVI, now in retirement at Castel Gandolfo, met with long applause. The prayers of the faithful were read in several languages, including Portuguese, Swahili and Malayalam, but by then many within the basilica had already begun to drift away.

Mary Wilsey