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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April 2005, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Pope's man out of a job
By Peter Gould
BBC News, Rome

Since the death of the Pope, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald has had time on his hands.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Archbishop Fitzgerald is the most senior UK clergyman at the Vatican

The 67-year-old Englishman was one of a number of top Vatican officials who automatically lost their jobs when the papacy of John Paul II ended.

It will be up to the new pope to decide whether to re-appoint him, or find a replacement.

So instead of going into his office, Archbishop Fitzgerald sits in his spacious apartment, just off St Peter's Square, and waits for the conclave.

"It is a bit strange," he says, as we sip mugs of tea in his kitchen. "But it is completely understandable, and a good thing because it gives the new pope the opportunity to make changes without any awkwardness."

The archbishop, who was born in Walsall, is the most senior British clergyman at the Vatican. His official title is "president of the pontifical council for inter-religious dialogue".

Put less formally, it is his job to promote good relations with other faiths, and following the 11 September attacks that has meant a particular emphasis on Islam. He is particularly well qualified, having a degree in Arabic from the University of London, and he speaks the language fluently.

Build bridges

The work of his department has had a high priority, given the attempts by John Paul II to build bridges with other religions.

"He was out ahead of us really, and we were running to catch up," says Archbishop Fitzgerald. "He was not just the Pope of Catholics. After his death I was e-mailed by a Muslim student who met the Pope. She said: 'it is a loss for us as well as you'.

Crowds in Vatican City
Well-wishers have been described as 'very peaceful'

"After the invasion of Iraq I was in Lebanon, and I met the leaders of all the different groups. They told me that if there was no trouble there over the war, it was because of the Pope."

Given his expertise, it would be surprising if the skills of the Englishman were not in demand during the next papacy, but he is philosophical about his fate. "There are other things I can do," he says with a smile.

One of the perks of the job is a top-floor apartment on the edge of St Peter's Square. He invites me onto the rooftop terrace, and the view takes my breath away. Ahead of us is St Peter's Basilica. Below is the column of tens of thousands of pilgrims, waiting in line to view the body of the Pope.

Radiated joy

Has the extraordinary public response to the death of John Paul II surprised the archbishop?

"Yes, I am surprised," he replies. "I knew how popular he was of course, but to see so many people, many of them young people, is a surprise, and the crowds are so good natured.

I cannot be sad about his death - I am moved when I see others cry, but I would not cry myself
Archbishop Fitzgerald

"But I have seen it before. In Manila, five million people turned out to see the Pope, and it was so peaceful. John Paul II radiated joy. It is the same here - people are happy."

The archbishop's rooftop has such a magnificent view that I tell him he could have rented it out to the broadcasters, whose cameras we see perched on surrounding rooftops.

He laughs at the thought, but agrees that his home will offer a superb vantage point, both for the Pope's funeral, and the conclave to elect his successor.

He points out the roof of the Sistine Chapel. All eyes will be focused on the chimney, waiting for the white smoke that will tell the world that a decision has been reached. "I suspect I will be up here from time to time, watching for the smoke," he says.

Globe-trotting Pope

Like everyone else, the archbishop will be fascinated to see who the cardinals will choose. "John Paul II made it a priority to go out and meet people," he says.

"Will we have another globe-trotting pope? Or will the new pope find another way of communicating with the world?"

As we look at the columns of pilgrims stretched out below us, I ask him about his personal feelings, following the death of John Paul II.

"His death has left a void, but there is a sense of relief for him," he says. "Knowing the kind of person he was, his illness was very frustrating for him, not being able to communicate.

"But I cannot be sad about his death. I am moved when I see others cry, but I would not cry myself."

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