“We ordered the book in May, but it didn’t move for several months. Then all of a sudden it was sold out.” Dermot O’Connell, the owner of the Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere, was referring to “Conclave” by John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the American magazine “National Catholic Reporter”.

Sales of the book picked up in August when Pope John Paul II gave more serious signs than usual of his advancing illness. Since then no journalist who has designs on following the last moments of this pontiff and the first moments of the next wants to be caught on the hop. But if one thing is certain about this pope it is that he is a man of surprises.

Books and obituaries on him have to be updated almost as soon

as they are written.

What happens next in this pontificate is anybody’s guess. Parkinson’s disease is a slow degenerative illness that is as likely to end in a long drawn-out and lingering death as it is in a sudden demise from secondary factors such as a heart attack. But the world’s media, which is acting on the assumption that the end is not far off, took last month’s 25th anniversary celebration of the election of John Paul II as the ideal opportunity to fine-tune its plans for the moment when he dies.

One journalist from Benin working for a French radio station said that he has now updated all his files and feels ready if the pope should die soon. Father Gerald O’Collins, a Jesuit and one of the religious experts working with BBC television during the October celebrations, said that it was a good opportunity to get to know the team of journalists and technicians he may be working with in future.

The BBC office in Rome would not talk about future plans but said that coverage last month went well and had good ratings in Britain, even though events in Rome coincided with the emergency meeting

of the Anglican Communion in London to discuss its controversy

over gay bishops.

A major American television network was also reluctant to reveal its secrets, but admitted that it is planning to have ten crews, or a staff of 80, to cover what it now calls “the event”. It has secured offices with a good view of St Peter’s in the Hotel Atlante Star in Borgo S. Angelico (terraces around the basilica are now almost impossible to rent). And contacts with American cardinals, who were very camera-hostile during the paedophile scandals of 2001, are now open and friendly.

The press also has plans to boost its staff for the coverage of the big event, and some weekly magazines are considering strengthening their existing operations or even setting up temporary offices in Rome. National daily newspapers will also increase their teams on the spot. It was estimated that more than 1,200 journalists were in Rome for the 25th

anniversary celebrations. The death of the pope could see three

times that number.

However, coverage will not be easy for those who are not already versed in the ways of Rome and the Vatican. One journalist from New Delhi television, in Rome for the beatification of Mother Teresa, had a difficult time. Without the financial backing and contacts available to the affluent western networks he found both news and technical assistance difficult to obtain. Perhaps this was because he spoke no Italian but he wondered how he was going to manage when the time came, and how he was going to find enough people to help. With more journalists than ever expected to come to Rome from countries in Africa, Asia and South America this will probably be a story that repeats itself often.

Good relations with the Vatican will be one of the ingredients for success. Almost all television images of papal events come through the Vatican’s television network CTV in conjunction with Italy’s public broadcaster, RAI, and APTV (Associated Press Television). Coverage of what goes on within the territory of the Holy See must first be cleared by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications headed by Archbishop John Foley. It is also advisable to keep on the right side of the Vatican press office, where a journalist’s credentials are sifted as carefully as they are for any summit of world political leaders. Its head, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, tightly controls all information released from there. A few years ago he said that 80 per cent of the news about the Vatican came through him, which is probably no longer true, but he has managed to keep the media guessing on the details of the pope’s illness for years.

While the wane of this pontificate may have many surprises still in store, the plans for a smooth transition from one pope to the next are all in place. The period goes from the official announcement of this pope’s death to the appearance of the new pope on the central loggia of St Peter’s. This could last from less than three weeks to over a month. At least ten days, at most 15, must elapse between the death of the pope and the opening of the conclave to elect his successor. The conclave will be made up of all cardinals under the age of 80 at the time. At present there are 14 more than the necessary 120.

In order to ensure the secrecy of the procedure there must be no contact between the cardinal electors and the outside world during the conclave. In the past, seclusion was guaranteed by the fact that the cardinals were housed in the immediate vicinity of the Sistine Chapel, where the voting takes place. Now they will be living in S. Marta, a re-modernised building to the left of St. Peter’s Square, some way from the Sistine Chapel. Transport from one location to the other will have to dodge the ever-vigilant television cameras. But secrecy may be endangered more by another modern development. Twenty-five years ago most cardinals had a staff of only one or two completely loyal prelates. Now many of them rely on an entourage of helpers and advisors, which may include specialists on media relations, some of whom may not be priests. Every cardinal’s retinue will be obliged to keep silence and refrain from talking to the media. But just as the British royal family has found that unquestioning loyalty among its staff is not what it once was, so today’s cardinals may find that their secrets are no longer as easy to keep as in days gone by.

For a good history of past conclaves and their procedure see “Storia delle Elezioni Pontificie” by Ambrogio M. Piazzoni. Piemme Religio, 2003. Piazzoni is a mediaeval scholar and vice prefect of the

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

Picture: The eyes of the world are on St Peter's.