The Editor’s Conference Room at a major English-language newspaper. White smoke is rising from the Sistine Chapel, but the identity of the new pope is as yet unknown. The EDITOR in chief sits at the head of the table, hunched over the speakerphone and straining to hear. From said speakerphone comes the disembodied voice of the paper’s REPORTER on the ground at St. Peter’s Square. Seated around the table are the chief European correspondent, EUROPE, the editor of the editorial page, OPINION, and sleeping peaceably at the other end of the table, the OBITUARY editor.
EDITOR: Can you hear us, Ed? Hello, are you there?
REPORTER: (faintly). Yes, I can hear you. It’s a bit noisy here in the square. But my, this crowd is most enthusiastic. They have some sort of soccer chant going from what I can understand, except instead of ‘Real Madrid’ they keep shouting ‘Viva El Papa.’ It’s really quite something!
EDITOR: All right, all right, that’s good, Ed. Tell us, what have you heard? Any word on who the new pope is yet?
REPORTER: Sorry, boss, no one seems to know anything. It’s pretty much chaos here— the bells are clanging and the people keep shouting louder and louder. And—wait a minute, I think someone just stole my umbrella. Hey, you, give that back!
The line suddenly goes silent.
EUROPE: I think he’s gone, Frank.
OBITUARY: (stirring suddenly). What? What? Who’s gone? The Dalai Lama? Shirley Temple? Desmond Tutu?
EDITOR: Calm down, Vernon, no one’s died. Ed’s just waded into a throng of Spaniards to retrieve a stolen umbrella in St. Peter’s Square.
OBITUARY: Oh, well if that’s all, never mind. (He settles back into his chair, and soon falls asleep once more).
EDITOR: While we’re waiting for the news, can we go over the plans to cover this story?
EUROPE: We have copy for all the major papabili written up in advance. Different angles depending on where they’re from, what they’re known for, the usual.
OPINION: And we have all the bases covered, too. Contraception, married priests, women’s ordination—check. Also, I have a great point-counterpoint lined up between a former Catholic priest and an atheist author.
EDITOR: What will they be debating?
OPINION: Exactly why the Church is so hung up on sex. They’re still stuck in the 13th century! I’ve read that the next pope might just shake things up a bit. Maybe all this business about condoms and no women priests will change when the new guy comes to power.
EUROPE: Don’t bet on it, Susan. The Catholic Church will never change. They just shift the language around a bit to keep the money flowing in. I mean look at their new capital campaign—what’s it called, again? “The New Evangelization.” Something about increasing their donor base. Anyway, the real story here is all about the Vatican’s struggle for geopolitical relevance.
OPINION: That might be true, but it misses the more important story: it’s all about the Church being misogynistic and irrational. It’s not just about sex, these celibate old men can’t stand anything progressive and forward-thinking.
EUROPE: Well of course they’re old fashioned, but all this doctrinal debate is just window-dressing for the heart of the matter: politics, and the money that comes with it.
OPINION: (forcefully) You’re ignoring what really affects people, and that is the Church trying to roll back all the advances we’ve made in the past fifty years! Their reactionary old dogmas are just dead wrong!
OBITUARY: (waking violently). Dead? Who? I’m up!
EDITOR: False alarm, Vernon. Just a bit of back-and-forth.
OBITUARY: (mumbling). No respect for peace and quiet around here. Always with phones ringing and computers buzzing . . .
As OBITUARY drifts back to sleep, the others remain silent for a short time.
EUROPE: You’ve been awfully quiet, Frank. What do you think? Is the Vatican’s problem a political one, or an ideological one?
EDITOR: It’s strange. Ever since the last pope resigned, I’ve been wondering whether this conclave would be very different from the last go-round. And goodness knows there’s been much recrimination and politicking in the past weeks. But you know what stands out to me? All those people there in the square, and around the world in churches and schools—they’re so hopeful. It’s amazing that even in the midst of all the debate, they still wait for a new father figure to walk out on that balcony and bless them.
EUROPE: Come now, Frank, don’t tell me you’ve gone sentimental on us! How many emotional political rallies did we cover last year, all with the same kind of raw enthusiasm?
EDITOR: It’s different than that, Joe. We cover this story like we would a political campaign, each with our own angles. You see plots for money and power behind every move, Susan senses an ideological battle at every turn, and even Ed just sees the whole thing as a great spectacle, a kind of ecclesiastical theater. I just can’t get over the feeling that we’re dealing with something of a whole different order here, and the people in the square know it. I suppose I admire those people’s faith—I envy it, really, and the great joy it seems to give them.
Silence once more, as OBITUARY snores softly and everyone else avoids eye contact.
EDITOR: I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’ve been feeling so strange about all this lately.
OPINION: (laughing awkwardly). And I thought that I was the only one recovering from a youth spent in Catholic school!
The EDITOR opens his mouth to say something, when the speakerphone sounds once more.
REPORTER: All right, I’m back. I had to wrestle my umbrella away from this little Brazilian punk, and then a bunch of Italian nuns tried to climb over me to get closer to the barricade . . . Wait a minute, the doors are opening on the balcony! There’s a Cardinal, I suppose—he’s wearing red, at least—and some other men in robes are putting a microphone in his face.
EDITOR: What’s he saying, Ed?
REPORTER: (shouting to be heard over the din of the crowd). He’s saying, “I announce to you a great joy . . .”
Image: Fyodor Bronnikov, At a Roadside Tavern