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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Cardinals' vow of silence

By Peter Gould
BBC News, Rome

Since the death of John Paul II, every cardinal arriving in Rome has faced the same questions.

Who will be the next pope? Who are you going to vote for? Do you expect to become pope yourself?

Media interview in Rome
Journalists have imposed a media inquisition on prelates

The sight of a scarlet-robed cleric, gliding down a side street, sets off a pursuit.

Cameras flash and microphones are thrust into the face of the unfortunate man.

It has all been a bit too much for the 115 "Princes of the Church" who are expected to enter the conclave next week.

They are heavily outnumbered by the 3,500 journalists who have flown in from all over the world.

So rather than face a continued media inquisition, the cardinals have now taken a self-imposed vow of silence.

They are not doing any more interviews, says the Vatican. In fact, they would really appreciate it if you didn't ask.

To journalists more used to dealing with politicians, who don't understand the concept of silence, it was a startling request.

They assumed that in the 21st Century, the Church was becoming more used to the demands of 24/7 media coverage.

But no, this is to be a time of prayer and quiet reflection. It is not something that comes naturally to most correspondents and news editors.

So I am thankful to have had the opportunity to talk to one of the cardinal-electors just before he was gagged.

'Spiritual experience'

As the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O'Brien is one of the newer cardinals, having received his red hat from John Paul II in 2003.

Sitting on the terrace of the Scottish College, just outside Rome, we talk about the responsibility that now falls on him to help elect a new pope.

Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O'Brien
Archbishop Keith O'Brien is one of the cardinal-electors

"It does cause me some thought, but not too many sleepless nights," he says.

"I have already had heavy responsibility at different levels. This is another one on my shoulders, but I have great faith and I am sure that God will not let me down.

"It will be a spiritual experience, completely shut off from the outside world, with no mobile phones or other forms of media impinging on what will indeed be a deep spirit of prayer.

"It is very humbling to realise that I am going to take part in this almost unique way of choosing a leader for the Church."

There is no way of avoiding the question. Does he ever, well, think that it could be him?

"I do have my return ticket to Edinburgh," he laughs.

"I suppose each one of us does have that fleeting thought, 'Oh, what if it is me?' but I soon dismissed it."

I decide not to tell him that one Dublin-based bookmaker is quoting him at 20-1 - shorter odds than some of the other cardinals.

Speculation

But how difficult will it be to find someone who can step into the shoes of John Paul II?

"It is amazing how the Church seems to provide the right man for the right time," he says.

John Allen
The cardinals are concerned about protecting the liberty of the conclave
John Allen
Vatican correspondent

"The Church seems to come up trumps through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with the help of God.

"I am sure God will help us, and inspire us to choose the right man to continue to lead us into this new millennium."

It seems unlikely there will be any further interviews in the days before the conclave, although the Vatican insists the cardinals mean no disrespect to the media.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, says the period of silence is intended to help the electors reach their decision without interference.

"The cardinals are concerned about protecting the liberty of the conclave," he says.

"The concern is that in this pre-conclave period, the media rather than the cardinals might end up setting the agenda."

Of course, the fact that the cardinals are not talking publicly will only increase the speculation about the papal election.

This election really does appear to be wide open. Just about everyone you ask, including senior clerics, insists there is no favourite.

Some names are frequently mentioned in the media, including half a dozen Italians, and several more from Latin America.

But the truth is, everyone is guessing.

The cardinals who will cast the votes may know better. But for now, they are keeping their thoughts to themselves.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Listen to Cardinal O'Brien speak about the task of selecting a new pontiff



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