Cardinals Get Upgrade at Conclave

A chapel is among features of the new residence hall for cardinals who are to begin voting Monday on a new pope.
A chapel is among features of the new residence hall for cardinals who are to begin voting Monday on a new pope. (L'osservatore Romano Photos Via Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 15, 2005

ROME, April 14 -- By the standards of contemporary Rome, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican's home-away-from-home for cardinals scheduled to begin voting for a new pope next week, is a three-star establishment: clean, well-lit and offering wholesome but plain food. No chocolates are placed on the pillows.

In comparison to where the cardinals used to stay, however, it's the Ritz. For the first time in memory, cardinals will not be staying in the Apostolic Palace, the grand but awkwardly laid-out behemoth of a building with precious artwork, gilded hallways and, for the scores of cardinals involved in a papal election, far too few bathrooms.

The new residence -- the name means St. Martha's House -- was built specifically to end the discomfort that marked previous conclaves. Aging cardinals were stuffed into all manner of rooms, many without running water, with privacy provided by blankets hung between cots. The late British Cardinal Basil Hume conjectured that the beds must have been supplied by "a seminary for very short people." The cardinals used communal toilets.

In his memoirs, the late Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens recalled the oppressive heat of August 1978, when cardinals were locked into the Apostolic Palace before electing Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani as John Paul I.

The windows were sealed shut, as is customary, to make sure no one sought advice or heard anything from outside, but it was so hot that the cardinals in one cubicle tore away the seals with their bare hands. "What a gift from God is oxygen, and a little fresh air," Suenens wrote.

The reason for the enclosed conditions is that the conclave must be held in strict isolation both during the day, when the cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel, and at night.

"Being uncomfortable had one side benefit," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America. "It sometimes worked to keep conclaves short."

This time, however, the entire Vatican grounds, except St. Peter's Basilica and the open square out front, will be considered conclave terrain, not just the palace and chapel. Cardinals will be able to stroll, but not to speak to non-electors.

The new residence is air-conditioned and heated. On Monday, Vatican officials provided a filmed tour of the facility, which between conclaves is used to house other people on church business.

The conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II is still days away, but the cardinals have already pledged themselves not to talk to reporters. An actual tour of the residence was forbidden because some cardinals are already staying there.

The five-story, $20 million structure, completed in 1996, is pale yellow with windows trimmed in travertine marble. It contains 107 suites, each of which includes a small sitting room, and 23 single rooms -- more than enough to house the 115 electors. All the rooms are equipped with bathrooms and showers.

There's an eating hall on the ground floor furnished with round tables that seat six or eight. The reception area is decorated with a bronze bust of John Paul. The chapel is lined with alabaster columns.

Normally, the guest rooms have television sets, but those will be removed to prevent the cardinals from getting any outside information. The cardinals are forbidden to use radios, telephones or computer communications during the conclave, in case someone is eavesdropping. Vatican officials say the cardinals will be ferried to and from the Sistine Chapel by bus.

The residence is not this conclave's only innovation. The large chalices formerly used to hold completed ballots have been replaced by containers that look like covered woks. The lid handles depict a shepherd carrying a sheep.

The old stove to burn the ballots is still in place at the Sistine Chapel. Black smoke will still mean a ballot has yet to produce a winner, while white smoke, supplemented this year by the ringing of bells, will mean there is a pope.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company