ROME — The Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel was built to sequester cardinals during papal elections. It’s now sequestering soon-to-be cardinals in town for this weekend’s ceremony to get their red hats: A handful are in protective coronavirus quarantine, confined to their rooms on Vatican orders and getting meals delivered to their doors.
The 10-day quarantines, with covid-19 tests administered at the start and finish, are just one example of how today’s ceremony to elevate new cardinals is like nothing the Holy See has ever seen.
“They told me it would be like this, but I didn’t think it would be so strict!” said Cardinal-designate Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, the retired archbishop of Chiapas, Mexico.
In a Zoom call from his hotel room, Esquivel said he had thought there might be some exceptions to the lockdown for new cardinals. “No. Here, it doesn’t matter if you’re a cardinal or a pope. The virus doesn’t respect anyone,” he said.
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Pope Francis today will elevate 13 clerics to the College of Cardinals, the elite group of red-robed churchmen whose primary task is to elect a new pope. It’s the seventh time Francis has named a new batch of cardinals since his election in 2013, and his imprint is increasingly shifting the balance of power away from Europe and toward the developing world.
The Vatican has said two new cardinals won’t make it to Rome for the ceremony, known as a consistory, because of covid-19 and travel concerns — the Vatican’s ambassador to Brunei, Cardinal-designate Cornelius Sim, and the archbishop of Capiz, Philippines, Cardinal-designate Jose Advincula.
The Vatican is arranging for them, and any of the cardinals who might not make it, to participate in the ceremony remotely from their homes. They’ll get their three-pointed “biretta” hats from a Vatican ambassador or another envoy.
For those who are participating in person, the public health crisis has posed an unusual set of challenges. Italy, where the pandemic erupted in late February, is in the throes of a second wave. The Vatican itself has returned to a modified lockdown in recent weeks, with the Vatican Museums shuttered and a dozen Swiss Guards testing positive.
Francis, 83, has been criticized for his rather lax mask usage, but he has abided by social distancing measures to a degree. He too lives at Santa Marta, where there has been at least one positive case reported in recent months.
Usually, consistories are full of parties and crowds: Cardinals come to town with family, friends and sometimes benefactors and parishioners who get to see the new “princes of the church” up close and then attend receptions and dinners in their honor. Under normal circumstances, the consistory would be followed by “courtesy visits,” where the new cardinals greet well-wishers and the general public from the grandeur of their own reception rooms in the Apostolic Palace or Vatican auditorium.
This year, there will be no courtesy visits, and each cardinal has a 10-person limit for