Rome is full of unusual sights as the machine to select the next pope rolls forward. Italians and 5,000 members of the media have seen gaggles of cardinals scurrying across St. Peter's Square en route to pre-conclave meetings. They have seen the next pope's fresh wardrobe – in three sizes, depending on his dimensions – on full display at an ecclesiastical tailor's shop.
Perhaps the most unusual sight on Tuesday took place on the auditorium stage of the Pontifical North American College, on the leafy Janiculum Hill overlooking the Vatican. Seated next to one another were two live-wire American cardinals, Sean O'Malley of Boston and Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
Why was the event unusual? Because cardinals almost never talk to the press during the pre-conclave congregation meetings. Traditionally, selecting a pope is a highly secretive process. Details of who says what in the meetings, who is up and who is down, goes to the grave with them. Even talking in general terms about the conclave process is rare, or at least was until now.
Neither man looks remotely like a cardinal. Sporting a brown hooded robe and white rope belt, Cardinal O'Malley was dressed like a Franciscan. Cardinal DiNardo was all in black, like a simple, though elegant, priest. They were taking questions from the mob of reporters about the conclave process (though careful not to break their oaths of secrecy) and having fun.
When asked why setting the date for the conclave was taking so long, Cardinal O'Malley replied that such a weighty decision should not be rushed and joked that the wait appealed to his stomach: "It's hard to get a bad meal in Rome."
While a few cardinals, among them Peter Turkson of Ghana, a longshot for the big job, have given one-on-one interviews, the Americans are changing the rules of media engagement in the 2013 edition of the conclave, which was triggered by Pope Benedict XVI's shock resignation on Feb. 11. They have rolled out cardinals on three occasions in the past few days – no other country has done the same with their church princes – and the pace is about to pick up with daily appearances. On Wednesday, two heavyweights, each considered a potential king maker because of their Vatican clout, are to appear: Chicago Cardinal Frances George and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Why is this happening? Depends on how conspiratorial you want to be.
According to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, media director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and organizer of the cardinals' appearances in Rome, there is no secret agenda. "There are 70 million Catholics in the U.S.," she said. "This is the easiest way to reach them, through the media."
The cardinals themselves had an equally simple explanation. "This is perhaps more normal in the United States," said Cardinal DiNardo, referring the American cardinals' generally media friendly approach to matters Catholic and Vatican.
But maybe something else was going on. It's an open secret that the American cardinals and bishops, along with their German counterparts, are not fans of the Curia, the Vatican's administrative body, which is led by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and considered an Italian power base.
There is no shortage of Vatican watchers who think the Curia is in sore need of reform. They say it is slow to make decisions, is undemocratic and occasionally botches the job. George Weigel, the author of many books on the popes and the church, including the newly published Evangelical Catholicism, called the Curia "dysfunctional."
Cardinals DiNardo and O'Malley were asked their opinions about the Curia and did their best to be subtle. The former said, "We need to look attentively at the work of the Curia. … The Curia is there to serve the Holy Father and there to serve the holy church." The latter said, "There is certainly a lot of reflection going on [about] the governance of the holy church."
A European diplomat to the Holy See, who did not want to be identified, said their statements were as close to outright criticism of the Italian-dominated Curia as decorum permits. "The Italians are feeling under attack," he said. "How will they retaliate?"
If they retaliate, it will probably be through leaks. The American Cardinals probably would use press conferences to mount a counterattack.