I don’t subscribe to an organised religion. So please forgive me for commenting on the recent happenings in Rome as a piece of entertainment. I realise there is more at stake but hey I’m only one blogger and there are plenty more out there if you don’t like it.
I have to hand it to the Catholic church: their conclave has been made great television.
Overall, I’ve found TV coverage of the death of the last pope and surrounding rituals over-the-top and at times mawkish.
TV news, so fixated with novelty, really struggles when something important but not fast moving is going on. There’s only so much credibility in breaking news which for two whole days is “The Pope isn’t dead” and then for a week is “The Pope is Dead”. The funeral was… well like many Catholic rituals it was very long.
On the face of it, the conclave offered the prospect of days more of such coverage. What seemed the near certainty that we would have no information whatever about what was going on inside really put the news boys on the spot. The only “news” to get excited about was a discussion of what colour the smoke was.
And you know what, I actually found it a fabulous spectacle. What a great striptease the Catholic church invented with the conclave. In our era of super-connectedness and (hopefully) greater transparency, what fun to be kept in the dark so meticulously and for the revelation to be played out as such a meticulous seqence of small excitements.
As someone who watched it live, I absolutely loved the slow, sometimes tentative unfolding. The smoke starts dark but turns whiteish. What could that mean? Even after it had turned pretty white, the bells don’t ring straight away, allowing us all to speculate wildly whether they’ve just forgotten to add the black chemicals.
Then we hear bells… but they turn out to be 5 o’clock chimes, so not THE bells. Then the real bells start to move, which really gets the crowd going… but it’s a few more tantalising seconds before they gather sufficient momentum to actually chime – creating another burst of cheers. So now we know there is a pope, but still don’t know who. And so on through the rituals, the opening of curtains, the bustling of servants, the latin announcment by Redhat Cardinal MC. Then we knew who it is but can’t see him. More delays, more figures behind windows, more bustling servants, arrangement of banners etc etc before a giant cross emerges and finally we get to see some serious Pope action.
(Here in the UK, Sky News got terribly worked up about the smoke. Oh, they lamented after all had been revealed, how terrbily confusing it was not being sure what colour the final puff of smoke had been. Oh, how come the bells didn’t ring straight away? I think they missed the point. And in the montages after the event they took out all the tantalising bits and failed completely to capture the experience)
As it turns out, they’ve chosen someone widely seen as an arch-conservative. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. And in the after-event coverage, I got a sense that now most of the ritual is over, some very real and significant arguments are going to carried on in public – ones that will probably be more heated and robust now that the charisma of John Paul II is not a factor.