VATICAN CITY, April 9 -- The cardinals gathered here to elect a new pope agreed Saturday to stop talking to the media, following a week in which they publicly debated whether to name a pontiff who is as much like Pope John Paul II as possible, or someone quite different.
The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, announced that the cardinals had "begun a period of more intense silence and prayer."
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, checks his watch while talking to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, inside the North American College after morning meetings. During the conclave to select the next pope, which begins April 18, secrecy will be heightened.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
"They decided unanimously to avoid interviews and meetings with the media. This should not be interpreted as a snub to the media but a gesture of great responsibility," Navarro-Valls said.
The cardinals had already taken an oath not to divulge what happens in their pre-conclave meetings. But outside the meetings, many of them, including several from the American contingent, spoke freely about issues facing the Catholic Church and its next pope.
For example, Latin American prelates called for a pope from their region. Some European cardinals urged the election of a pontiff who would grant more autonomy to bishops.
During the conclave, which begins April 18, the secrecy will be heightened. The cardinals will be sequestered in Vatican City and prohibited from having contact with anyone outside. A total of 117 cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote.
But church officials said Saturday that two of them, Cardinals Jaime L. Sin of Manila and Adolfo Antonio Suarez Rivera of Monterrey, Mexico, were ill and would not attend.
An aide to one of the cardinals said the new gag rule showed the influence of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals and the enforcer of doctrinal discipline for the late pope. "It was he who brought this about," the aide said.
"The cardinals have been asked not to have interviews with anyone," said Cardinal Eugenio de Araujo Sales, the former archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, who was willing to break the ban only to discuss it. "A period of silence has begun. The decision was not mine."
Wendy J. Reardon, author of "The Deaths of the Popes," said the silencing was unprecedented but so was the amount of interaction between cardinals and the media last week.
"Normally, the complete secrecy does not begin until they're in the conclave. This is the first time they've been hushed up in advance," she said.
The ban does not apply to church ceremonies. Key cardinals are scheduled to extol John Paul's virtues in eulogies at daily Masses from now until the conclave.
In the run-ups to past conclaves, Vatican insiders and the media parsed these statements for clues about what was going on in the cardinals' private discussions.
Little could be deciphered from Saturday's homily. Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, a friend of John Paul's, stuck to reminiscences about him. "Might I dare say we are not saying a Mass for the pope's soul because by this time, God will already have rewarded him infinitely in heaven," Marchisano said.