Vatican's secret machinery begins search for successor

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Halfway through a day of crackling tension, a message through the Vatican press room's Tannoy sent the journalists packed in the work room scrambling for the entrance. The occasion: the release of a fresh bulletin of news.

Halfway through a day of crackling tension, a message through the Vatican press room's Tannoy sent the journalists packed in the work room scrambling for the entrance. The occasion: the release of a fresh bulletin of news.

Could the moment have arrived like this, not with the slamming of shutters or the tolling of a bell or the solemn words of Cardinal Ruini, vicar of Rome, but a banal, computer-printed Vatican Bolletino? But no. Bolletino number 0176 was nothing so earth-shattering. It was a list of resignations and appointments of bishops and archbishops: 7 resignations, 8 new appointments, in dioceses and archdioceses as far apart as Argentina, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, Kenya, Estonia, India, Mozambique, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

It was Vatican business as usual, the machinery of the church continuing to grind on even while the captain was missing, possibly for ever. It was a timely reminder of what a massive organisation he has headed, and of how, throughout his 26-year tenure, he has been happy to delegate much of the administrative donkey work, concentrating on the things he considered most important.

But the sheer number of the appointments announced was also seen, on a day when everyone craved signs - and reliable ones were in desperately short supply - as a deck-clearing operation, possibly a final opportunity for the Pope and his clan to put their stamp on the Church's organisation and its personnel.

The Vatican has always been one of the world's more opaque organisations, often compared with the Kremlin or the Chinese Communist party for secretiveness, deviousness, inscrutability and intrigue. What it offers for public consumption is almost by definition of only secondary importance; the important stuff, the things everyone wants to know, are by contrast deeply hidden, only to be guessed at.

This much, however, is known: the Pope is close to death; for the first time, that is the universal consensus here. A second medical bulletin released just before 7pm last night confirmed it. According to the new bulletin, the Pope's condition had worsened yet again. "A gradual worsening of arterial hypotension has been noted," the statement said, "and breathing has become shallow." "Cardio-circulatory and renal insufficiency" was indicated, it went on, and "the biological parameters are notably compromised". The end was approaching, slowly but steadily.

No one doubts any more that the Pope is on the verge of death. Once he dies, a number of important things will happen in rapid succession. All the existing office holders in the Curia will automatically lose their jobs, with the exception of the "C amerlengo", the cardinal who has the duty of ascertaining that the pope has died and who is then in charge of running the Vatican during the inter-regnum, and two others. The present Camerlengo is Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo. By his side will be Cardinal Camillo, the vicar of Rome (who must keep the affairs of the Eternal City running), and the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, who must be available for confessions. Once he dies, all cardinals who are not already in Rome must make their way there with all speed.

Within three or four days of the death, the cardinals meet every day in a session known as the general congregation, within the Vatican. Their job is to take decisions regarding the funeral of the Pope and the election of the next one. Smaller congregations may be set up, too, to deal with detailed questions. The Pope will lie in state for three days before the funeral.

Not less than 15, or more than 20 days after the death, the Conclave to elect his successor must begin, with the participation of all 117 cardinals under the age of 80. During the Middle Ages, conclaves could stretch on almost indefinitely. But in modern times they have become efficient affairs: the longest of the 20th century, in 1922, lasted only five days.

In other words, in a little over three weeks from the Pope's death, at the outside - well before the end of this month - the Catholic Church is almost certain to have a new chief. And in its peculiar, ancient, Holy Spirit-guided way, the Church will chose him democratically.

Yet of all the peculiar things about the election that will produce the new Pope, the most peculiar is perhaps this: while rigorously democratic, it is also completely closed. Public canvassing of any sort is banned. Nobody is allowed to announce his candidacy, no one either outside or inside is allowed to lobby or campaign for someone else. To the same degree that it is democratic it is also totally closed, hieratic. There is no other election process like it in the world.

It is therefore impossible to report. It is impossible - only Vatican specialists with years and years of experience can attempt the task - to give an idea of how the secret, invisible campaign is proceeding. Yet in cardinals' apartments and in Roman restaurants over brandies and cigars, this unique process is already in full swing.

THE PONTIFF'S DECLINE

31 January: Vatican cancels Pope's private audiences because of "flu symptoms"

1 February: Pope sent to hospital with acute inflammation of the throat

6 February: Frail but alert Pope appears at hospital window. He tries to speak but his voice catches after only a few words

10 February: After doctors proclaim his acute inflammation "cured", he leaves hospital aboard Popemobile

24 February: Undergoes "successful" tracheotomy

19 March: The Pope misses Palm Sunday Mass for the first time in his 26-year pontificate

27 March: The Pope struggles but fails to give his traditional Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) Easter blessing in St Peter's Square

31 March: Pope has heart attack after suffering a "high fever caused by an infection of urinary tract"

1 April: Leader of Polish community in Rome says the Pope is "ready" to die

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