Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Casa di Santa Marta

A room at St. Martha's House.   From L'Osservatore Romano
At one point, during the evacuation from Storm Sandy, we spent a couple of nights at the Howard Johnson's motor lodge in Saugerties, New York.  It was pretty typical of an older, low-end chain motel:  comfortable enough without being pleasant.  The bedding was clean, but the carpets had their share of cigarette burns.  There were a pool and a sauna, but neither was warm enough to use.  The halls had an antiseptic aroma.

We arrived just a few hours after a much larger group of evacuees, the elderly and infirm residents of a nursing home, along with their caregivers.  Empty wheelchairs blocked the entrance to the restaurant, and the whole building came to smell a little less antiseptic.  The old people, when we passed them, all appeared to be a little lost, and a little unhappy.  We felt sorry for them.

This rural HoJo's would have been paradise itself next to the traditional conclave of cardinals.  For centuries, the most powerful men in the Roman Catholic world, many of them very old, were housed in surprisingly uncomfortable circumstances as they gathered to elect one of their number to a position of still greater power.

The idea of a conclave -- meaning, obviously, to be locked in "with a key" -- goes back to 1271, when a secular authorities, annoyed that the politicking of the cardinals had delayed the choice of a new pope for two years and nine months, literally locked them into a room and told them not to come out until their work was finished.  They were done in a day.  The pope they elected, Gregory XI, was sufficiently impressed by this system that he made it a law, and so it has endured, with significant changes and one brief abrogation, ever since.

This "locked in" business is pretty literal, too.  The old Catholic Encyclopedia describes the original rules:
When a pope died, the cardinals with him were to wait ten days for their absent brethren. Then, each with a single servant, lay or cleric, they were to assemble in the palace where the pope was at his death, or, if that were impossible, the nearest city not under interdict, in the bishop's house or some other suitable place. 
All were to assemble in one room (conclave), without partition or hanging, and live in common. This room and another retired chamber, to which they might go freely, were to be so closed in that no one could go in or out unobserved, nor anyone from without speak secretly with any cardinal. 
And if anyone from without had aught to say, it must be on the business of the election and with the knowledge of all the cardinals present. No cardinal might send out any message, whether verbal or written, under pain of excommunication. There was to be a window through which food could be admitted. 
If after three days the cardinals did not arrive at a decision, they were to receive for the next five days only one dish at their noon and evening meals. If these five days elapsed without an election, only bread, wine, and water should be their fare. .... Those who disregarded the laws of the conclave or tampered with its liberty, besides incurring other punishments, were ipso facto excommunicated.
Imagine another crowd of comparably old and powerful people -- let's say, the Senate and the Supreme Court -- setting up camp in a single unpartitioned room for days or even weeks on end.  You can't, can you?  Neither can we. And yet this seems to have been how it was done for a long time, although by the modern era it was no longer a single undivided room, but several floors of the Vatican Palace, the offices and corridors of which were crowed with cots borrowed from seminaries, separated (sometimes) by no more than a sheet hung from a rope.  Primitive enough, and then remember the limited bathroom facilities.

The most recent legislation on the subject is John Paul II's Universis Dominici Gregis (1996).  For lodging, he caused to be built the Domus Sanctae Marthae, or St. Martha's House, a residence within walking distance of the Sistine Chapel.  Given the age and infirmity of so many cardinals, this was an act of human decency.  Rooms at St. Martha's House are described as small and comfortable; best of all, each has its own toilet.

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