Cardinals Begin Conclave to Elect a New Pope

By DANIEL J. WAKIN and IAN FISHER

New York Times

April 18, 2005

ROME, April 18 - Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church retreated behind the heavy wooden doors of the Sistine Chapel today and began the tradition-laden and secret ceremonies to elect one of their number the 265th pope.

In solemn procession, walking slowly in pairs, they proceeded into the chapel as a choir chanted the Litany of Saints, passing through a pair of Swiss guards in full regalia. After taking their seats behind long tables, the cardinals were read an oath of secrecy and obedience by their dean, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Their birettas, red hats that symbolize the power of their offices, sat on the tables in front of them.

Then they lined up and one by one put their hand on the Gospel and swore to obey. The entire pageant was televised live, a first in conclave history and in keeping with the tradition of John Paul II, who used television throughout his papacy to promote the faith. Even in death, his image was broadcast as he lay in state inside St. Peter's Basilica.

"Extra omnes!" cried Piero Marini, the master of papal liturgical ceremonies - or "Everyone out!" He and a theologian chosen to deliver an inspirational message remained. The rules called for them to leave after the address. At that point, the cardinals were to decide whether to hold a first round of voting tonight or not.

Earlier in the day, they heard another message. Cardinal Ratzinger, who will be a powerful force in the conclave, took the occasion of a morning Mass dedicated to the election to issue denounce anyone who would stray from traditional Catholic doctrine.

The 114 other cardinals sat in quarter-circles in front of him. It was the last public rite before the conclave.

"A dictatorship of relativism is being built that recognizes nothing as definite," Cardinal Ratzinger said, "and which leaves as the ultimate measure only one's ego and desires."

For 25 years, Cardinal Ratzinger served as John Paul's theological right hand - and watchdog - as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In his writings and public statements, Cardinal Ratzinger has often sought to uphold the primacy of Catholicism, saying no other religion offered a path to salvation. "Relativism," he has said, implies - wrongly - that other faiths are equally valid. The idea was strongly expressed in a document the congregation issued in 2000, Dominus Iesus, which provoked angry responses from other religious leaders.

In his homily today, Cardinal Ratzinger said that Christians were tossed on the waves of Marxism, liberalism and even "libertinism;" of radical individualism, atheism and vague mysticism. He also decried the creation of "sects" and how people are seduced into them, using a term church leaders often employ to refer to Protestant evangelical movements.

"Having a clear faith, according to the Credo of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism," he said. "Yet relativism, that is, letting oneself being carried 'here and there by any wind of doctrine,' appears as the sole attitude good enough for modern times."

Many of the cardinals, draped in bright-red vestments and wearing white mitres, watched intently as Cardinal Ratzinger spoke on a platform below Bernini's bronze baldacchino. Several others among them - two thirds of the cardinals voting for pope are septuagenarians - appeared to doze.

Cardinal Ratzinger, 78, spoke Italian in heavily accented German, his voice creaky at times and interrupted by coughs. Several church officials said he had been suffering from a cold.

The cardinal has emerged as a front-runner in the election for the next pope, or at least the reference point for a bloc of support generally oriented toward a more conservative position. He has been a major force among the cardinals since John Paul's death on April 2, celebrating the funeral Mass and leading the cardinals' regular daily meetings.

Commentators agreed that while the cardinal had been saying similar things for decades, hearing them expressed, and so sharply at that, just before the conclave was unexpected. But there were different interpretations of his intent.

At the funeral, the cardinal showed his pastoral side, said John-Peter Pham, a former Vatican diplomat and author of a book about papal succession.

At the Mass today, "he's giving evidence that he also has, if you will, the 'vision thing,' that he has definite ideas of where the natural progression of John Paul's theological legacy is," Mr. Pham said. "Whether that's a campaign statement or requirement of what the next guy must have - that remains to be seen."

The message is that John Paul's goals must be maintained, he said. "Either as a candidate or a grand elector, he's definitely in a very strong position, and he wouldn't have made this statement if he was standing alone," Mr. Pham said.

Alberto Monticone, a professor of modern history at Lumsa Catholic University in Rome, called the comments "a very clear indication of what in his view the attitude of the next pope should be - an attitude of struggle against these evils of the world."

It was likely that most of the cardinals were well familiar with Cardinal Ratzinger's thinking, and his belief that the church's first priority should be to shore up the doctrinal walls.

"It's very honest," said the Rev. Gerald O'Collins, a theologian at the Gregorian Pontifical Univesity in Rome. "That's what he thinks."

"Some of the cardinals would not agree with his summation," he said. "Other things like war and peace and hunger are high on the agenda of other cardinals."

After attending the Mass, the Rev. Raymond J. de Souza, chaplain at Newman House at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, said that Cardinal Ratzinger's homily was an "exhortation" to the cardinals to go into the conclave keeping in mind that the primary responsibility of a pope is to preserve the faith passed on from the apostles and not to dilute or experiment with it.

"If the faith is strong, then the church can take on these other issues," said Mr. de Souza, who writes a syndicated column.

Prof. Hans Küng, a theologian at the University of Tubingen, who has tangled with Cardinal Ratzinger, said he heard similar views many years ago from him. "His ideology is a medieval, anti-Reformation, anti-modern paradigm of the church and the papacy," he said.

The mourning that followed John Paul's death seemed fully lifted today, amid an air of expectation in the church and St. Peter's square. In contrast with the solemnity of the funeral rites, the Mass today was open to tourists, whose babies cried and cameras flashed at this latest chapter in two millenniums of history.

Four large screens were set up in St. Peter's Square to broadcast the Mass live. Crowds of tourists, clergy, Vatican officials and nuns gazed up at the cardinals projected on the screens. Some said they were praying for them.

Brother Felix, who has come from Germany to Rome to study, said that while the conclave was indeed a political process, "the whole election is a prayer," explaining, "They pray that their human voting is led from the Holy Spirit."

Already, the crimson curtain has been hung on the central balcony of the basilica facing St. Peter's for the new pope's traditional first appearance before the crowds.

About an hour before Mass, the cardinals left St. Martha's residence, a hotel of sorts on the Vatican grounds built by John Paul for conclaves.

They made the 100-yard walk to the basilica, strolling mostly in groups of two and three, including two cardinals mentioned as possible popes: Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina and Tarcisio Bertone of Italy. Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles shared a chipper greeting with reporters. A French cardinal, Paul Poupard, chatted briefly with the French press.

With the conclave under way, all the cardinals will now remain cut off from all outside contact.

After the Mass, the congregation of priests, nuns, pilgrims and a scattering of tourists applauded as the cardinals walked in procession out of the basilica, the applause rising, it seemed, as favored papal candidates passed. But the loudest applause was for Cardinal Ratzinger as he pulled up the procession's tail - so enthusiastic that he gave a big smile to recognize it.

Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting for this article.