VATICAN CITY: Catholics huddling under umbrellas in St. Peter’s Square as the conclave to elect a new pope began Tuesday said they were praying for a strong leader to guide the church through difficult times.
As the 115 cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel to begin their deliberations, a sense of anticipation filled the crowd outside the heavy rain.
“Ever since Benedict XVI resigned I’ve been waiting for this moment, I’m so excited,” said Paula Murphy from Ireland, who had traveled to Rome with her local church community. “It’s a moment for renewal, for a newly united church,” the 38-year old said as she stamped her feet to keep warm.
Hundreds of clergy and pilgrims had queued to get into St. Peter’s Basilica for a special last Mass with the 115 cardinal electors, before they began voting to elect a successor to Benedict.
While tourists ran for cover from hailstones, a man dressed in a dirty sackcloth habit knelt barefoot in prayer in front of the basilica as hymns echoed around the square.
Dozens sheltered from the rain before the steps leading up to the basilica.
“Without a pope I feel bereft, like an orphan. I pray to give the cardinals the strength to choose the right man to lead the church,” French priest Guillaume Le Floch said as a crack of thunder resounded around the square. “It cannot be an easy decision, but the church needs a great leader now more than ever. The cardinals have a chance to astonish us,” the 35-year-old added.
Despite the harsh weather, pilgrims took up position under the balustrades surrounding the square, determined to get a front row seat of the Sistine Chapel chimney.
“It’s freezing and I’m wet through but we’re here now so we’re staying put in case it happens today!” said Marie Phillipe from Belgium, 53, who had traveled to Rome for the conclave.
Sister Celestina, 62, a nun from Croatia, said: “We’ll be praying for the cardinals until a decision is made.”
“The church is like a boat, all the faithful are sailing in it together but we’re without a helmsman at the moment,” she added.
A stone’s throw from the Vatican, young Catholics from all over the world prayed in 24-hour vigils.
“We are holding nonstop prayers here, day and night, asking people to come and support the cardinals with their prayers,” said Fabien Lambert, chaplain of the 12th-century Saint Lawrence Church and international youth center in Rome.
Roger Seogo, a priest from Burkina Faso in West Africa, said there had been a lot of talk about whether the new pope could come from Africa or Asia in a break from tradition. But for him, nationality was irrelevant.
“We need someone able to provide the church with what it needs in today’s world, someone who will help it open up to the world and listen to the people, really hear the concerns of the faithful,” the cheerful 41-year-old said.
Pre-conclave talks among cardinals gathered in Rome after Benedict’s resignation appeared to focus on the problems afflicting the Curia – the Vatican’s unruly governing body – and its distance from the grassroots.
“It’s a dangerous period. The church is much more divided now than it has ever been, and it is with trepidation and concern that we wait for the decision as to who is chosen,” said Nicholas Gruner, a 70-year-old priest from Montreal.
“If they don’t choose the right pope, it could make the situation a lot worse. We may not deserve a good pope as sinners, but we certainly need one.”
Saverio, a white-haired 71-year-old Italian architect who took time off work to come to St. Peter’s Square, said the church had lost touch with the simple pilgrims.
“The church’s biggest problem is its estrangement from the real world. Priests don’t care about others any more, nuns live in their own world,” Saverio said.
Others were more positive: Francesca Rivello from Milan said she thought all the cardinals had something special to offer.
“There’s an electric feeling in the air. I have a feeling the new pope is going to be a great one,” the 27-year- old said.